Governments have the primary responsibility to protect human rights. However, individuals and organizations also have important roles to play in supporting and respecting human rights. The business community has a responsibility to respect human rights, that is, not to infringe human rights, in the context of their own activities and their business relationships. Operating context, company activities and relationships can pose risks that the company might negatively impact human rights, but they also present opportunities to support or promote the enjoyment of human rights while also advancing one’s business.
Societies in which human rights are respected are more stable and provide a better environment for business. Businesses whether operating outside their country of origin or at home may have the opportunity to promote and help raise standards in countries where protection of human rights issues is insufficient, especially in ways that are strategically relevant to its core business.
Access to global information means that consumers are increasingly aware of where their goods come from and the conditions under which they are made.
Global sourcing and distribution means that companies need to be aware of potential human rights issues both upstream and downstream.
Workers who are treated with dignity and given fair and just remuneration for their work are more likely to be productive and remain loyal to an employer. New recruits increasingly consider the social, environmental and governance record of companies when making their choice of employer.
Companies that operate on a global basis are visible to a large audience world-wide as a result of advances in communications technologies. Addressing human rights issues positively can bring rewards at site level, within local communities, as well as in the broader global commons in which companies operate.
Respect for human rights is part of Principle 1 of the United Nations Global Compact. In June 2011, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council as an authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. The “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework rests on three independent, but inter-related pillars: the State duty to protect human rights (Pillar I), the corporate responsibility to respect human rights (Pillar II) and access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses (Pillar III). Pillar II establishes the ‘Responsibility to Respect’ as the minimum global standard on human rights for all businesses wherever they operate. Download Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations "Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework
To respect rights essentially means not to infringe on the rights of others — put in other words — to refrain from having a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights. A joint note by the Global Compact and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the relationship between the Guiding Principles and the commitments undertaken by Global Compact signatories, explains that the “Guiding Principles provide further conceptual and operational clarity for the two human rights principles championed by the Global Compact”.
Business has the potential to impact — positively and negatively — virtually all human rights. Accordingly, business should consider their potential impact on all rights. However, some actual or potential impacts will require special consideration, for example, where the actual or potential impacts are very serious and/or there is a strong connection between the company and the abuse.
For the content of human rights, at a minimum, companies should look to the International Bill of Human Rights and the core International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. The publication Human Rights Translated elaborates the main internationally proclaimed human rights from a business perspective and offers practical examples of how companies have infringed on human rights and, as a result, ended up in trouble, as well as examples of how businesses have supported the enjoyment of the rights. Although some rights will be more relevant than others in particular circumstances, situations change, so broader periodic reassessment is necessary.
Business must comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate. In the rare situation that national law directly conflicts with international standards, companies should seek ways to honour the principles of internationally recognized human rights. Please click here for our good practice note entitled “Meeting the Responsibility to Respect in Situations of Conflicting Legal Requirements”.
Importantly, the corporate responsibility to respect exists independently of States’ human rights duties. Among other things, this means that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights whether they are operating in an area of weak governance or in a more stable context. In areas where there is weak governance, the risks of infringing human rights may be greater because of the context. For information on how to use conflict sensitive business practices in such contexts, see Guidance on Responsible Business in Conflict-Affected & High-Risk Areas: A Resource for Companies & Investors.
Because the responsibility to respect is a baseline expectation, a company cannot compensate for infringing human rights in one aspect of their business by performing good deeds elsewhere, such as through philanthropic acts, supporting human rights in other areas or by good performance on other issues, such as the environment.
Companies should consider three sets of factors in determining the scope of their responsibility to respect human rights or, in other words, the risk of potential negative impacts on human rights in connection with the conduct of their business.
Companies should adopt a statement of policy as a public commitment to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights, approved by their board or equivalent. It can be a stand-alone statement or integrated into a broader corporate sustainability policy or code of conduct. Broad inspirational language may be used to describe respect for human rights, but more detailed guidance in specific functional areas is necessary to give those commitments practical meaning. The policy should stipulate the company’s human rights expectations of personnel, business partners and those directly linked to the organization’s operations, products or services. As such, it should be communicated to these parties, as well as be publically available.
The policy should be informed by internal/external human rights expertise. Developing a human rights policy can also be an important opportunity for stakeholder engagement on the topic of human rights, which can be almost as important as the policy that results from the process. View sample Human Rights policies. Once prepared, the policy should be reflected in operational policies and procedures in order to embed it throughout the business functions. Download: A Guide for Business: How to Develop a Human Rights Policy.
In order to ensure and demonstrate (i.e. to know and show) that a company is meeting its responsibility to respect human rights it should undertake due diligence. Human rights due diligence is the ongoing process taken to identify, prevent and mitigate and account for negative human rights impacts which the company may cause or contribute to through its own activities or which may be directly linked to the company’s products, operations or services by a business relationship. Human rights due diligence will vary in complexity with the size of the business, the risk of human rights impacts, and the nature and context of the business operations. The process should draw on internal and/or independent external human rights expertise and involve appropriate and meaningful consultation with potentially affected stakeholders. Tools and guidance materials are very helpful in this process. Comparable processes are typically already embedded in companies to assess and manage financial and related risks.
The poster A Human Rights Management Framework — available in all six official UN languages at the UN Global Compact's tools and guidance page — shows the elements of a comprehensive management approach to human rights. Particularly important elements are:
A company should have in place or participate in remediation processes. This allows the company to address adverse human rights impacts that it has caused or contributed to. Effective company-level grievance mechanisms ensure that employees, contractors, local communities and others can raise their concerns and have them be considered. This can help companies to identify risks of negative impacts and avoid escalation of disputes.
In practice, respect and support for human rights are often closely interlinked in terms of the management steps that are taken to enable and ensure respect and support for human rights. For example, corporate policies on human rights often make positive commitments to support human rights, especially rights that may be strategically relevant to their business. Analyses of context, activities and relationships are likely to yield opportunities to promote human rights as well as possible risks of infringing rights. And companies often include in their reports information about the positive contribution they are making to human rights.
Supporting human rights involves making a positive contribution to human rights, to promote or advance human rights. Socially responsible organizations will typically have a broader capability and often desire to support the promotion of human rights within their sphere of influence especially in ways that link strategically to their core business activities. The business case for supporting human rights can be as strong as the business case for respecting human rights. Likewise, stakeholder expectations often extend to the belief that organizations can and should make a positive contribution to the realization of human rights where they are in a position to do so.
There are at least four ways business can support or promote human rights:
These are elaborated in the Blueprint for Corporate Sustainability Leadership, which was adopted by the Global Compact participants at the Leaders Summit in June 2010. It makes clear that to be a corporate leaders on sustainability, business must not just avoid negative impacts, along with all other actors, but also make a positive contribution to society and do its part especially in ways relevant to its business in helping to overcome the most acute and chronic challenges.
The topic of human rights can sometimes be challenging for a company to talk about with its managers and employees and/or those outside the company. However, promoting understanding about what human rights are, their relevance to business and what, in practical terms, business can do to address human rights issues can help to make action to respect human rights easier.
Some businesses find that looking at opportunities to support human rights as well as the risks of infringing human rights helps to motivate managers and staff to address risks too. Another approach some businesses find helpful is to start by looking at what the business is already doing to respect and support human rights, such as by having good human resources policies and practices, implementing policies on non discrimination and promoting diversity in the workforce, respecting the privacy of customers and workers, undertaking efforts to make essential products more accessible to the poor and implementing effective occupational health and safety policies and practices. This helps to demystify human rights by showing that respecting human rights does not require starting from the very beginning. Nor does it need a whole new management system. Human rights can be integrated into existing business processes and procedures. Some companies find it helpful to look for the right entry point and language to discuss risks and opportunities with managers and staff. Sometimes it might be easier to begin the discussion by talking about familiar concepts like respect, dignity, fairness and equality, and specific scenarios with which managers and employees may be confronted. Companies investing in emerging economies may find it useful to discuss challenges to implementing Principles 1 and 2 in the Global Compact’s Human Rights and Business Dilemmas Forum.
For more information about how to implement the United Nations Global Compact's human rights principles, including tools and resources, please see our Human rights issues page.
(Last updated: 26 July 2013)