March 15, 2012

Despite a plethora of international initiatives on corporate social responsibility (CSR), none has focused exclusively on the impact of business on children's rights. This is a curious omission when children under 18 make up nearly a third of the global population, when the rights of millions of children across the world are routinely violated or denied, and when business practices have such wide-ranging effects on children. Human Rights Watch has been documenting violations of the rights of children for many years, including instances in which large international corporations have been linked to abuses, in places like Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea and China.

This week's launch in London of the Children's Rights and Business Principles -- sponsored by UNICEF, Save the Children and the UN Global Compact, and with a large number of corporate representatives in attendance -- therefore offers a new approach. It has the potential to improve the protection and promotion of children's rights.

The principles themselves have some notable elements. They recognise and explicitly refer to existing international human rights law, specifically the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the relevant articles of the International Labour Organisation Convention on the worst forms of child labour. Unlike so much traditional CSR activity, the principles focus not on corporate philanthropy but rather on core business practices, something that Human Rights Watch has long advocated. The principles call on businesses to respect children's rights, "addressing any adverse human rights impact with which the business is involved," applying to the business' own activities and to "its business relationships, linked to its operations, products or services." In addition, they propose a corporate commitment to "support" children's rights, including through "strategic social investments... advocacy and public policy engagement," and by working in partnerships with others.

The principles also recognise that action to safeguard the rights of children goes far wider than the issue of child labour. Amongst the 10 principles set out in the initiative, there is a call on business to ensure that their products and services are safe, that marketing and advertising strategies respect and support children's rights, that children's rights are upheld and advanced in relation to the environment and land acquisition, and that businesses should pay particular attention to safeguarding children in emergency situations, when they tend to be more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of abuse.

While these elements of the initiative are positive, it is less clear how the principles will be translated into substantive changes in corporate behaviour. The UN Global Compact, one of the three sponsors of this initiative, has suffered since its inception from the lack of any enforcement mechanism. The new Children's Rights and Business Principles seem to be cut from the same cloth. The document talks about human rights due diligence; it calls on business to assess its actual and potential human rights impact, and then to integrate and act on its findings. But there is no requirement on those participating companies to submit to independent monitoring, and there are no penalties proposed for any company that endorses the principles but then acts in ways that contradict them.

At the opening event, the sponsors of the initiative put great emphasis on voluntary action and "the business case" for giving greater priority to children's rights. There is indeed such a case. But if advancing children's rights is so self-evidently and naturally consistent with businesses' interests in growth and profit, there would presumably be fewer instances of corporate involvement in human rights abuses. The Children's Rights and Business Principles are themselves an acknowledgement that corporate behaviour can sometimes be harmful, and that action is needed to prevent harm and promote good practice.

Human Rights Watch's own research on business and human rights and on children's rights suggests that voluntary action and pressure by nongovernmental organizations and the media -- while essential -- will often be insufficient to address the most serious abuses. Our recent work on artisanal (or small-scale) gold mining in Mali is a case in point. It has been estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 children work in Mali's artisanal gold mining sector. Many of them start working as young as age 6. These child miners are exposed to mercury, a highly toxic substance, when they mix gold with mercury and then burn the amalgam to separate out the gold. Mercury poisoning from this work leads to a range of neurological conditions, including tremors, coordination problems, vision impairment, severe headaches and memory loss. Many of the children involved in gold mining also miss out on school.

Human Rights Watch's research shows that, with some exceptions, Malian and international gold companies involved with artisanal gold mining in Mali have not done enough to address the issue of child labour and other abuses in the supply chain. We are urging the Malian government to take concrete policy and legislative steps to end the use of mercury by children working in artisanal mining. We are also urging governments and international business involved in this sector to support a strong global treaty on mercury: one that requires governments to implement mandatory action plans for mercury reduction in artisanal gold mining.

The Children's Rights and Business Principles are a significant development. They provide useful guidance to companies on how to minimise or prevent harmful impacts on children from their operations and how to enhance the positive impacts. But experience suggests that they will need to be matched by sustained public, civil society and media scrutiny of corporate practice, alongside appropriate political and legal reforms, if they are to deliver real and lasting change to children around the world.

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