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Opinion

A vision for the next decade of business and human rights

UNGPs10+

This blog is part of a portal on the UNGPs10+ project.

By Anita Ramasastry (Chair) and Dante Pesce (Vice-Chair), UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

16 June 2021 will mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Their unanimous endorsement by the UN was a landmark moment for business respect for human rights but also for better business.

This milestone is the opportunity to reflect on progress and challenges and more importantly to make a renewed push for scaled-up global implementation of the UNGPs over the next decade. This is why we launched “UNGPs10+ / NextDecadeBHR”, a major project in collaboration with OHCHR and UNDP, supported by Germany, Switzerland, and other partners.

Our ambition is to look back at the first ten years of UNGPs implementation – and look forward to design a roadmap for the next decade. The first part will be a stocktaking to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2021, assessing achievements and failures to date as well as obstacles and opportunities for leveraging faster and wider change in the coming years. The second part, a roadmap that aims to provide strategic direction to all stakeholders, will be launched on 16 June 2021.

This 10-year anniversary is an important milestone but there is much more at stake in our current environment which makes today a real inflection point for the future we want: the climate and environmental crises, combined with other major global challenges, such as shrinking civic space, populism, corruption, conflict and fragility, and yet unknown human consequences of technological disruption. The socio-economic crisis resulting from Covid-19 has further laid bare and amplified gross existing inequalities and structural discrimination.

Responsible business is a key part of the solution, as underscored by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 17’s call for revitalized global partnerships and Goal 16’s emphasis on a sustainable development rooted in peace, stability, human rights and effective rule of law, set a clear vision for multi-stakeholder action. The UNGPs’ three pillars tell us what is needed in practice: States must protect human rights, business should respect human rights, and victims need access to effective remedy.

The UNGPs have contributed to significant achievements, but much more is needed to realize their vision of “tangible results for affected individuals and communities, and thereby also contributing to a socially sustainable globalization.”

UNGPs10+ already started this essential discussion, with a global multi-stakeholder launch in July and through consultations with stakeholders, ranging from civil society networks in Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa; to business associations; investors and those that engage with them; European governments; lawyers, NHRIs, etc. This will continue with upcoming consultations with stakeholders in other regions, grassroots organizations, investors, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples’ networks, and others.

This has made the big picture clearer. On the positive side, the UNGPs provide a globally agreed standard and baseline for what governments and businesses need to do to embed respect for human rights in a business context – something which did not exist before 2011. One of the most telling examples is the key UNGPs concept of corporate human rights due diligence. Introduced by the UNGPs, it is now at the centre of regulatory developments in Europe, with increasing backing from business and investors.

At the same time, prevention remains inconsistent, relatively few governments are taking action beyond lip service to the UNGPs, and access to remedy for business-related harms is a major and urgent challenge for achieving meaningful progress. This is rooted in “governance gaps” that still allow too many instances of business-related abuses across all sectors and regions. Cases in point range from widespread forced labour across global supply chains to violent attacks and legal harassment against human rights defenders, including union representatives.

This still reflects a problem of scale, as the business and human rights movement has not succeeded in addressing the massive capacity building need, particularly in the Global South. This challenge was pointed out as strategic issue by the author of the UNGPs, John Ruggie, in his 2011-recommendations for embedding the UNGPs.

As we look toward solutions, UNGPs10+ seeks to seize on emerging action, opportunities and drivers to further embed respect for human rights at the core of business faster and more widely. This includes the recent wave of mandatory human rights due diligence (one of the mandatory dimensions in the “smart mix” prescribed by the UNGPs for Government action); the role and leverage of financial sector actors; and calls for putting people and planet at the centre of Covid-19 responses .

We are grateful to the many stakeholders that have already contributed their valuable inputs, and we look forward to many additional contributions throughout the course of the project. Beyond the wide-ranging consultations (including the upcoming annual UN Forum, virtual on 16-18 November), we are inviting all interested parties to have their say through written contributions.

We very much appreciate Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s (BHRRC) support in the form of this new portal, which will help ensure that the process of developing a vision for the path ahead on business and human rights is open, inclusive, and accessible.