Japanese companies need to do more in addressing human rights issues in their businesses as a failure to keep up with international ethical standards will be a serious risk to their operations in global markets, a U.N. Development Program director said.

"If companies do not tackle this issue in the right way, they could be shut out from the European and U.S. markets," Asako Okai, director of the UNDP's Crisis Bureau, said in a recent interview.

Asako Okai, director of U.N. Development Program's Crisis Bureau, speaks in an interview in Tokyo on Jan. 17, 2023. (Kyodo)

Companies worldwide in apparel, textile and solar panel industries, for example, have scrutinized their supply chains to see if their products included materials from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area known for producing cotton and polysilicon used in solar panels.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded last year in a report that "serious human rights violations" against the Uyghur and "other predominantly Muslim communities" have been committed, though Beijing denies the allegations.

Okai, a Japanese national, said the UNDP itself is following the situation in the autonomous region.

"If China desires to conduct business and human rights due diligence training, we are in a position to support such efforts," she said, adding that currently, there is no specific movement or project on the matter.

European countries and the United States, in particular, have aggressively advanced rule-making in eradicating human rights violations, such as forced labor from supply chains.

In Germany, the law on due diligence in supply chains came into force this year, requiring companies with at least 3,000 employees doing business in the country to identify legal and ethical situations in their operations, such as human rights and environmental risks.

The United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 unanimously endorsed the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent and address human rights abuses committed in business operations.

The UNDP launched new Human Rights Due Diligence training materials and tools to help businesses prevent, mitigate and account for potential human rights abuses in their operations and supply chains.

Last September, the Japanese government released its "Guidelines on Respecting Human Rights in Responsible Supply Chains," which requires firms doing business in the country to formulate their human rights policy, conduct human rights due diligence and provide a remedy when business enterprises cause or contribute to situations adversely impacting human rights.

Okai said the concept of human rights assessment has not been widely shared among subcontractors or small- and medium-sized enterprises in Japan largely due to shortages of human resources and funds.

"It is a tremendous amount of work and costs money, but efforts will lead to the improvement of corporate brands," Okai said.

Mining in Africa and elsewhere is also a high-risk industry in terms of human rights violations, including the use of child labor amid global competition to secure minerals necessary for products such as batteries linked to decarbonization, Okai added.

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