Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct

Each year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosts the Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct where representatives from civil society, business, governments and trade unions meet to discuss and promote better business practices. 

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the government-backed standards for responsible business that cover a range of issues, including human rights, labour and the environment. It was an occasion for reflection about the progress and impact of the OECD Guidelines and plenty of ‘mid-life crisis’ gags.    

I participated in the panel discussion on ‘taking stock of NCP activities’. NCPs – National Contact Points – are the agencies established by governments to promote and implement the Guidelines. NCPs are responsible for furthering the effectiveness of the Guidelines, including by accepting, mediating and, where possible, resolving complaints against companies.

While there are some standout NCPs, in most cases the mechanism is not meeting its potential. Around 50% of cases submitted to NCPs are rejected at the initial assessment phase. Even when cases are accepted the integrity of the process is regularly compromised by a lack of resources, independence and relevant expertise. This all means is that too often communities and NGOs seeking accountability and remedy under the OECD Guidelines face a dead end.

I spoke about the Human Rights Law Centre’s experience engaging with the Australian NCP. In 2014 the Human Rights Law Centre, along with UK-based NGO RAID, made a complaint against G4S to the Australian NCP. The complaint argued that G4S caused and contributed to serious human rights violations in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The violations detailed in the complaint include arbitrary detention, inhumane conditions and specific abuses that took place during the outbreak of violence in February 2014.

Eight months after submitting the complaint we were advised that the Australian NCP had decided not to investigate the complaint. In essence, the NCP was unwilling to consider the complaint because it involved abuses that were also perpetrated by the Australian Government. The NCP effectively read into the Guidelines a non-existent and regressive exception for companies that are responsible for Government-sanctioned human rights violations. The decision sets a dangerous precedent by reading down the human rights protections in the OECD Guidelines and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.   

Despite this and other stark reminders of the deficiencies within some NCPs, the panel discussion was not all doom and gloom. There are some clear, simple steps NCPs can take to better enable them to fulfil their mandate. OECD Watch has done an excellent job of setting out concrete recommendations for reform in a “4x10 point plan for why and how to unlock the potential of the OECD Guidelines”

With more resources, independence and expertise NCPs can fill the gaping chasm where a strong Government-backed non-judicial remedy and accountability mechanism should be. The discussion at the Global Forum served to highlight the importance and urgency of these reforms.  

The webcast of the panel discussion is available here.

Rachel Ball is Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre