By Baron Lobstein, Economic Section Chief, U.S. Embassy Belgrade
We only need to look at the front-page news to see that the Serbian people care not only about the growth of the economy, but also about how that growth affects their quality of life. Companies operating in this country must consider how their business practices affect the environment, the lives and health of their workers, the communities in which they operate, and those who use their products and services. Companies can and should help positively shape society and the environment – supporting workers’ rights and improving working conditions, building trust with communities, and operating sustainably. However, some global companies have had an adverse impact on people and the environment through activities that have led to lost investment or profits and damaged global brand image.
As part of Serbia’s European integration process, the Serbian government is making strong efforts to harmonize its laws and regulations with those of the European Union. Some of the most important reforms in this process are those that affect business practices in the areas of labor, environmental protection, and other critical areas. The United States is committed to supporting Serbia’s efforts in that direction. As part of that work, we must help ensure that American companies in Serbia follow responsible business practices—to be good corporate citizens in Serbia, and to help promote responsible economic development.
To help address these challenges, the U.S. government promotes internationally recognized guidelines, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on Responsible Business Conduct and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). On June 16, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that our government will update and revitalize its National Action Plan (NAP) on Responsible Business Conduct.
The United States’ first NAP, published on December 16, 2016, was the first whole-of-government action plan intended to focus, improve, and expand efforts to promote responsible business conduct by U.S.-based companies operating abroad. This action plan is a powerful tool to help the government set priorities, coordinate action, assess progress, and communicate gains on responsible business conduct in areas including environmental protection and labor relations.
Many other governments have also developed or begun developing NAPs on Business and Human Rights. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights, a civil society organization, in 2016 published a draft assessment of Serbia’s application of the UN Guiding Principles as a basis for national discussion on developing a National Action Plan for Serbia—a process we strongly support. Discussion with interested groups is a crucial component of effective development of a National Action Plan.
For this reason, as we update our own National Action Plan, my government is seeking views and recommendations from members of the private sector and civil society regarding U.S. business activities in Serbia. This input may be contributed through the U.S. Federal Register and through discussions. We recognize one of the most important stakeholder groups in this process is also the hardest to reach – that is, the most vulnerable individuals and communities who may be impacted by the conduct of U.S. companies abroad. U.S. Embassy Belgrade is committed to engaging these hard-to-reach individuals and groups. U.S. Embassy Belgrade has posted the Federal Register Notice on our website, and we are ready to host closed-door consultations with stakeholders interested in sharing their views.
The updated NAP will be one of many tools used by the Biden Administration to advance responsible business conduct. Our National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct is a resource for dispute resolution and mediation that can assist when issues arise related to business conduct in an American company’s operations. Our government has also been active in promoting development of guidelines to avoid business risks in areas ranging from private security firms, conflict minerals, and labor-intensive industries like footwear and apparel.
We are committed to promoting responsible business conduct, but we cannot do it without your help. We invite you to reach out to our Embassy or visit the Federal Register webpage to submit your thoughts, comments, and concerns about the conduct of U.S. companies in Serbia. Together, by creating the most effective NAP possible, we can work towards ensuring businesses respect the environment, workers, and the communities in which they operate.