Five on Friday – Five Recent Developments that We’ve Been Watching Closely (Special Post-Election Edition)

iStock_000011057325XSmallIt’s Friday and time for an overview of developments in the field of business and human rights that we’ve been monitoring. This week’s post is focused entirely on responses to the recent election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.

This week’s post includes: the potential for changes to legislation and regulation related to the human rights impacts of business activity; private sector support for continued U.S. support for the Paris Climate Agreement; and the efforts of Internet companies to address concerns about hate speech and fake news.

  • As we look ahead to the Trump Administration, many questions exist with regard to the fate of legislation and regulation that has sought to address the human rights impacts of business activity, including Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act and several initiatives related to human trafficking. It is important to keep in mind President Obama’s recent observation that “the federal government is an aircraft carrier, it’s not a speedboat.” Many changes have been proposed and few will happen quickly. Significantly, not everything that has been promised is likely to be done — and it certainly can’t be done all at once. Legislation will be harder to change than reforms that were implemented through Executive Order, like the heightened requirements with regard to human trafficking that are now applicable to federal contractors. Notably, initiatives to address human trafficking have had bi-partisan support and that support is unlikely to change, at least in principle. That said, in practice, federal government priorities will be expressed not only through legislative reform but also through budget allocations. In many ways, all that can be said is that it’s too early to tell. We will be watching closely.
  • One of the major news stories emerging from the Presidential election is the changing media landscape and the impact of “fake news.” Attention has also been focused on hate speech and the activities of white nationalist groups within the United States. Since November 8, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all taken steps to address these concerns. Twitter has moved forward with an effort to block the accounts of several users that were allegedly involved in abusive online behavior and in promoting hate speech.  Google and Facebook have stated that they will update their advertising policies to ban advertisements that direct users to fake news sites. In the coming months, continued attention is likely to be paid to the policy changes of companies whose platforms serve as platforms for both free expression and the spread of abusive and misleading content.
  • On November 17, more than 360 companies and investors issued an open letter to President-elect Trump calling for continued participation in the Paris Climate Agreement. The President-elect has previously stated that he would withdraw the United States’ support for the agreement. The open letter states that “[f]ailure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk. But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness” and urges U.S. leaders to support “investment in the low carbon economy at home and abroad.” Signatories to the open letter include DuPont, Hilton, Mars Incorporated, Unilever, and Nike.
  • Looking ahead, we still expect to see the release of the U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct before the end of President Obama’s time in office. First announced by President Obama in September 2014, the plan is expected to focus on ways in which the U.S. Government can promote and encourage responsible business conduct in the following areas: human rights; labor rights; land tenure and agriculture; trade and investment; and anti-corruption. In many ways, skeptics would be right to question the extent to which the Plan will be prioritized under the next Administration. That said, stakeholders seeking to advocate for policy reforms and changes in various parts of the Executive Branch are likely to benefit from the lengthy drafting process that has engaged people across multiple departments, including the Departments of State, Labor, Commerce, Justice, and Treasury. Responsible business conduct, on its face, is not a partisan issue. While the Plan is unlikely to be a strong platform for legislative efforts in the coming years, there may still be room for stakeholders to use the National Action Plan as a framework to drive policy changes.
  • The 2016 U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights, held November 14-16, 2016, provided attendees with a chance to reflect on the impact of the results of the U.S. Presidential election. In a Plenary address, Professor John Ruggie, the primary author of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, observed that the results of the U.S. election and the Brexit referendum should spur members of the business and human rights community to “maximize the effectiveness of [their] efforts to make globalization work for all.” He cited a January 1999 speech by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who warned that unless globalization is built on strong social pillars, it is “vulnerable to backlash from all the ‘isms’ of our post-cold war world: protectionism; populism; nationalism; ethnic chauvinism; fanaticism; and terrorism.” Immediate reactions from other stakeholders can be found here.


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