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Thursday, June 1, 2023


UH Energy hosts human rights panel

President Renu Khator was among the panelists at UH Energy's virtual continuation of its Energy Symposium. | File photo

President Renu Khator was among the panelists at UH Energy’s virtual continuation of its Energy Symposium. | File photo

UH Energy hosted a virtual continuation of its Energy Symposium series on Sept. 30 where leaders in the energy industry discussed the role of governments and businesses to protect and respect human rights. 

In 2011, the United Nations published the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which outlines governments’ responsibility to protect human rights and businesses’ obligation to respect human rights, as well as the expectation that both are to provide access remedy for violations.

Though the guiding principles have been a beacon for some governments and companies looking to form laws and policies addressing human rights for nearly a decade now, some violations of the UNGP endure. 

Composed of four guest speakers and opening statements from President Renu Khator and UH chief energy officer Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the panel aimed to examine the factors that can mitigate or exacerbate human rights abuses in the energy industry, such as company standards, compliance with and enforceability of laws and the part inequality plays in rights violations.

“Think about some of the most deplorable working conditions that you’ve ever seen … Horrible conditions that you would never want a member of your family working or living in,” said panel moderator Dean Slocum. “And imagine being constrained by another person or by an organization to have to work or live in those conditions. How would that make you feel?” 

When the UN first published its guiding principles, businesses such as mining giant Newmont welcomed the UNGP as the guidelines provided direction in addressing human rights that the company was previously lacking. 

Some businesses, like Newmont, had tried to outline what they thought might be their role in regards to human rights before the introduction of the UNGP. Claire Larner, director of sustainability and external relations for Newmont and speaker on the panel, discussed Newmont’s first attempts to create a human rights policy in 2005. 

“At that time, there was no clarity on businesses’ role versus the governments’ role in this space,” Larner said. “So we did a pretty poor job, honestly, of internalizing human rights at that time and trying to understand what it meant for us, our processes and our standards.”

Under the UNGP, governments have a greater responsibility than businesses in how they manage human rights, as they are expected to protect rights as opposed to respecting them.

While some governments, such as France’s, have enacted laws that aim to proactively manage human rights issues, others have struggled to protect their people in the same way, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Human rights specialist at BP and panel speaker Nili Safavi spoke of BP’s decision to upgrade the water supply for a community of about 7,000 people in Senegal at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

The community had been relying on shipments of water before the pandemic, but when the shipments stopped, BP chose to protect the community’s right to clean water, though the company’s operations hadn’t caused the lack of water in the area.

“The community needed us in their time of need, and we will need them and their support … And you could argue that it was the duty of the government to protect that right,” Safavi said, “but in that case, they weren’t able to and we were able to step in and support.”

Many of the human rights laws currently on the books across the globe, such as the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UNGP are soft laws which can’t be legally enforced before a court, according to Tom Wilson, Vinson & Elkins LLP partner and panel speaker. 

These acts rely on yearly self-reporting from businesses on their handling of human rights. 

“It’s a little bit of a name and shame type of thing, because if you don’t report or the report is faulty in some way, you may get some bad publicity, but that’s about the extent of it,” Wilson said. “The French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law is much more aggressive in that it actually has a provision in there about preventing human rights violations, which is a big step forward in terms of how the law is developing.” 

The issue of human rights is multifaceted and Krishnamoorti says understanding the problem and addressing it within the energy industry means those working to change things need to contextualize the unintended consequences of industry activities, think about them and apply what they’ve learned. 

“These are the kinds of things, I think, that our students and the University of Houston need to keep pushing,” Krishnamoorti said in a phone interview. “It is uncomfortable for people to talk about, but we need to find modes of having these conversations and through them, advance the world forward.” 

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