Business and Human Rights

Worldwide respect of human rights is one of the most important challenges facing the global community.  Respecting the dignity of every individual and creating a legal climate in which human rights can flourish are not only fundamental ethical requirements, but preconditions for sustainable political stability and economic and social development.

Human rights covenants are conventions under international law and therefore agreements between states.  This means that, in the first instance, states are responsible for the implementation of human rights.

In the debate on better global implementation of human rights however, the activity of MNEs is playing an increasingly important role.  In 2003, a sub-commission of the UN Commission on Human Rights presented the “draft norms” on the responsibilities of corporations towards human rights.  These draft norms took the approach that the duty of governments to enforce human rights could be transferred to companies, sometimes in a binding manner.  In 2004, these draft norms were thrown out by the UN Commission on Human Rights and a special representative for human rights and business was appointed – Professor John Ruggie – who in 2008 proposed a concept for human rights and companies based on three pillars:

  • The State duty to protect against human rights abuses through appropriate policies, regulation and dispute resolutions.
  • The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, to act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others.
  • Access to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuse, including through court or in-house processes.

The IOE welcomed Prof. Ruggie’s “protect, respect and remedy” framework because it clearly distinguished between the responsibilities of the various players and clarified the complex interface between human rights and companies.

Based on these three pillars, Prof. Ruggie developed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011.  Importantly, these Principles do not impose new legal obligations, or change existing human rights instruments, but aim to articulate what these established instruments mean, and to address the gap between law and practice.

As a follow-up, the Human Rights Council established a Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations to promote the dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles.