BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Innovative Human Rights Impact Assessments

One-Hour Conversation Session / November 7, 2013


  • John Morrison, Executive Director, Institute for Human Rights and Business
  • Daniel T. Bross, Senior Director, Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft
  • Chris Anderson, Americas Director, Communities and Social Performance, Rio Tinto, PLC
  • Chloё Poynton, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR (Moderator)


  • Integrating human rights into a company and conducting human rights impact assessments can add significant value to the business.

  • It is important for companies to be transparent about their human rights risks, but they do not need to share the results of their full human rights assessment, which can put vulnerable people at risk.

  • There is a great need for companies to roll out targeted training internally on human rights for specific people within the organization given the lack of understanding of human rights issues.

Memorable Quotes

“Businesses must never get the message that human rights are just about managing risk.” —John Morrison, Institute for Human Rights and Business

“If there is one part of our human rights work that has caused angst [within Microsoft] it is this concept of human rights impact assessments.” —Daniel T. Bross, Microsoft

“Having a champion [for human rights] at the most senior level is important.” —Chris Anderson, Rio Tinto, PLC


Poynton opened the session by explaining the responsibility of companies under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) to know and show their impact on human rights through conducting due diligence. Morrison explained that “a good human rights assessment will be critical” of the company. As a result, the entire findings of a company’s human rights impact assessment (HRIA) should not be fully transparent, as HRIAs are political and deal with vulnerable people who could become more vulnerable if the full results were made public.

Anderson explained that, internally, Rio Tinto is combating a narrow view of human rights, as many have the impression that human rights abuses are something that only happen in the developing world. This interpretation is contrasted with an overly broad view, shared by much of civil society, that sees everything in terms of human rights to the point of making the concept meaningless. To combat this, Anderson is promoting a holistic approach to human rights and HRIA to manage risk and investment within Rio Tinto. He stressed that it is important to conduct assessments early in the acquisition and exploration process, as it sets the tone for the whole relationship with a community.

Poynton asked Bross why Microsoft conducted an HRIA before launching operations in Myanmar. Bross responded by stating, “Why would you go into a market with your eyes closed and be blind to issues of corporate risk?” He explained that it made perfect business sense to do an HRIA. The assessment looked at what the Microsoft business would look like in the country and who they could partner with locally that would be beyond reproach. The HRIA came up with short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations for action to mitigate risk, which they are in the process of implementing. Bross reported that he was able to get the right people on board to successfully complete HRIAs through working with senior staff. Anderson concurred and noted that Rio Tinto’s human rights integration is supported and led by the board. Anderson added that Rio Tinto was the first mining company to have a human rights policy, which the company updated upon the release of the UNGPs. Microsoft, on the other hand, created a policy for the first time with the guidance provided by the UNGPs, which made human rights more understandable and digestible for businesses.

Bross and Anderson agreed on the need for internal education on human rights. Morrison explained that the UN Declaration for Human Rights was not written with companies in mind, and so they are now thinking about how to operationalize these rights, something governments have never done.

Highlighting his work on sector-wide HRIA in Myanmar, Morrison explained that companies are working collaboratively to assess human rights risks and develop common methodologies for greater alignment. As a collaborative and public assessment these can be critical of government, industry, and civil society in a way that individual assessments cannot. Bross, highlighting another type of assessment, noted that Microsoft has conducted three or four product- or service-specific HRIAs. Through these assessments Microsoft has added significant value to the business.

Poynton highlighted the challenge and human rights implications of product misuse. Bross explained that this is a real and fascinating challenge for Microsoft that happens in real-time, noting the need for internal training on how to address these issues. Morrison added that many products may be misused and therefore have unforeseen impacts that companies may be unaware of—unless they take a close look at their value chain and understand their products’ chain of custody.

In the question-and-answer session, Jason Pielemeier from the United States Department of State asked about the impact of reporting requirements and how to keep the sector-wide HRIA alive given the quickly changing atmosphere in Myanmar. Morrison responded by stating that reporting requirements are an important force for human rights work in the country and agreed that the assessments need to be part of a dynamic process in order to stay relevant. Bross added that HRIAs need to be part of the ongoing business practice to maintain their significance over time.

Mark Bauhaus of Just Business asked if the HRIAs assess opportunities as well as mitigate liabilities. Bross explained that identifying opportunities is a critical aspect of HRIAs. Morrison added that, in addition to highlighting business opportunities, HRIAs can help people realize their rights. Anderson agreed, noting that Rio Tinto identifies opportunities for community empowerment and economic sustainability.

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