By Davide Cerrato, Senior Policy Specialist, Human Rights and Social Issues, PRI
As we reach the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (marked this year by Human Rights day on 10 December) and as COP28 approaches its end, we need to reflect on the importance of respecting human rights in light of what the World Economic Forum has termed, “the 21st century polycrisis”.
Human rights represent the foundation upon which action on social issues, such as decent work, extreme inequality, and the social challenges of the net-zero transition, should be built.
How climate change threatens human rights
However, climate change poses one of the biggest threats to human rights in our time. It will put the lives and livelihoods of millions at risk, increase inequalities within and among countries, and cause waves of migration that can threaten the fabric of our societies, lending strength to the already growing isolationist tendencies across Western countries. Yet discussions around this at COP are still lagging behind. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, fewer than half of the national climate plans submitted to date mention human rights.
The challenges of the net-zero transition will increase pressure on social systems and test the mechanisms in place that protect human rights. The International Energy Agency reports that the market size of key energy transition minerals doubled over the past five years, reaching USD320 billion in 2022. The majority of these minerals come from countries and regions where severe human rights risks are known.
To ensure that human rights and social issues are considered in investment decisions, strong policy action is needed.
More investor action needed on human rights
According to estimates by Moody’s, over US$8 trillion of the debt it rates is highly subject to social risks, versus US$2 trillion that faces environmental risks. However, investor action on human rights and social issues is still not where it ought to be. In 2022, the PRI updated its reporting framework to include more information on how investors integrate human rights and social issues in their investment decisions. Provisional results show that less than half currently use the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises when identifying sustainability outcomes connected with their investment activities.
The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights recognises that the financial sector needs to be more involved. After publishing an analysis of investor implementation of the UN Guiding Principles in 2021, it recently ran a call for inputs on Investors, ESG and Human Rights, with an in-person session at the 12th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva (to which the PRI responded). However, the small number of investors present at the Forum, and the absence of policymakers (not helped by it coinciding with the start of COP28) indicate that more attention is required.
How policymakers can support investors acting on human rights
To ensure that human rights and social issues are considered in investment decisions, strong policy action is needed. The UN Working Group recommends that states “develop and implement policies for cross-government alignment of UNGPs implementation activities with legislative, regulatory, policy and adjudicative efforts related to institutional investment.”
The PRI recently published a discussion paper on Adopting a strategic approach to human rights and social issues policy. The paper highlights a number of areas for policymakers to focus on, both for sustainable finance and real economy regulation. On the back of this document, the PRI will ramp up its work on human rights and social issues policies in the future.
Policies should support the development of an enabling environment for rights-respecting investment, through the following measures:
- Supporting the development of data on human rights risks and impacts, including through mandatory human rights and social issues disclosures;
- Adopting due diligence regulations aligned with international standards;
- Clarifying how investors should consider impacts on human rights and social issues in their investment decisions.
Further research is also needed on the systemic risks presented by increasing and extreme inequality, to increase understanding and shine a spotlight on this and other related issues.
The PRI blog aims to contribute to the debate around topical responsible investment issues. It is written by PRI staff members and occasionally guest contributors. Blog authors write in their individual capacity – posts do not necessarily represent a PRI view.