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Business & human rights - A brief introduction




Woman & child in Niger Delta near shore & water damaged by oil spill - credit: Leigh DayIntroduction

In the wake of major abuses in recent decades, civil society has increasingly called for companies to be held to human rights standards.  Union Carbide was widely denounced for the 1984 Bhopal chemical gas leak that killed thousands in India.  In the 1990s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) campaigned against child labour and other abuses in the supply chains of prominent apparel and footwear companies.  They also denounced alleged abuses by mining, oil and gas companies including complicity in violence by government security forces and pollution that damaged the health of people in nearby communities.

In the past companies tended to approach social issues through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes.  However, many CSR initiatives are undertaken selectively, based on what the company voluntarily chooses to address.  A human rights approach requires companies to respect all human rights; they do not have the option of picking and choosing to deal with only those issues with which they feel comfortable.  A human rights framework provides a universally recognised, people-centred approach to companies’ social & environmental impacts.

The United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the "Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and  Remedy' Framework" in 2011.  This framework consists of the state duty to protect against human rights abuses; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and greater access by victims to effective remedies.  Also in 2011, the Council established a Working Group on business & human rights, and an annual Forum on business & human rights, organised by the Working Group.  Previously, the UN had launched the voluntary Global Compact in 2000; and appointed a Special Representative on business & human rights in 2005, who drafted the Guiding Principles.

Companies have joined together, in some cases with governments, international organizations and/or NGOs, in voluntary initiatives to address some human rights issues.  An increasing number of companies are taking positive steps to promote human rights.  But the daily reports on our site of abuses by companies demonstrate that much remains to be done.

The context

Every company in every industry sector has human rights impacts and responsibilities.  As demonstrated on our website, companies can impact the entire range of human rights issues positively or negatively, including discrimination, sexual harassment, health & safety, freedom of association and to form unions, rape, torture, freedom of expression, privacy, poverty, food and water, education and housing.

Companies have long been accused of responsibility for human rights abuses.  Some examples:

  • Historical abuses: Companies profited from: slavery and the slave trade; providing goods and services to Nazi Germany that enabled war crimes and crimes against humanity; forced labour in Asia during World War II; selling to the apartheid government in South Africa and military governments in Latin America products that they used in perpetrating abuses.
  • Killings: Blackwater (now Academi) was sued over shootings in Baghdad in 2007 that left 17 civilians dead.
  • Environmental health: A US-owned company operated an outdated lead smelter in La Oroya, Peru -- 99% of children in the area were found to have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood.
  • Rape & sexual abuse: Multinational beer companies hire “beer promotion women” in Cambodia to promote their products in bars.  But many companies allegedly do not do enough to protect the women (who are often teenagers) from rape and abuse.
  • Torture: Security companies hired by international diamond firms in Cuango, Angola, were reportedly responsible for beatings, attacks with machetes, sexual abuse, torture and killings.  The victims were artisanal miners.
  • Child labour: Uzbekistan forces children to work in cotton fields without pay, then sells the cotton onto international markets, where it is bought and used by major companies.
  • Freedom of expression: Canadian firm Netsweeper reportedly assists the Pakistan Govt. with online censorship - and has not responded to civil society concerns
  • Indigenous peoples & displacement: In India, a mining company was accused of displacing a tribal group from its traditional lands without obtaining consent or providing adequate compensation.
  • Complicity: Burmese soldiers providing security for a pipeline that was developed by major oil companies forced villagers to work on the pipeline and shot and tortured protesters.
  • Discrimination: Wal-Mart was accused in a lawsuit of systematically discriminating against thousands of its female employees in USA.  Some employers in France have insisted that employment agencies refer only white workers to them, according to prosecutors.
  • Labour rights: Foreign companies operating in Colombia have been sued for allegedly paying paramilitaries who intimidated and killed union leaders.
  • Access to water: In India, beverage companies have allegedly depleted groundwater supplies in rural villages.
  • Workplace safety: Hundreds die every year in Chinese coal mines.

Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights

Some historically maintained that human rights standards were only applicable to governments, not the private sector.  Some companies claimed that their sole obligation was to respect national laws, even where those laws failed to meet international human rights standards.

However, the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on “every individual and every organ of society” to promote and respect human rights.  Leading international law scholar Louis Henkin noted in 1999 that “every individual and every organ of society excludes no one, no company, no market, no cyberspace.  The Universal Declaration applies to them all.”

Although the primary duty to protect human rights remains with national governments, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights in their operations.  The UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by consensus in 2011.  Guiding Principle 11 states: "Business enterprises should respect human rights.  This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved."  The official commentaries to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, state: "The responsibility to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate...[It] exists over and above compliance with national laws and regulations protecting human rights."

UN human rights system

The foundation of the international human rights framework was laid in 1948, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Universal Declaration led to the adoption of binding global treaties on human rights: the International Covenants on Civil & Political Rights and on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights.  Thematic UN treaties have also been adopted on the rights of women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities; and freedom from genocide, racial discrimination and torture.  (More information on UN human rights treaties here.)  UN special procedures such as working groups, special rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed on issues including business & human rights, rights of indigenous peoples and cultural rights.  Parallel to the UN system, the International Labour Organization has adopted numerous conventions on the rights of workers.  There is not yet any universal, international mechanism for victims of human rights abuses to bring complaints against companies, although a current Intergovernmental working group established by the UN Human Rights Council is mandated to "elaborate an international legally binding instrument" on business and human rights.

  • UN Global Compact

In 2000, the United Nations launched the UN Global Compact, a voluntary “policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with… [nine] universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour [and] environment.”  (A tenth principle on anti-corruption was added in 2004.)  Thousands of companies participate in the Global Compact and report publicly on steps they take to comply with the ten principles.  However, as the Global Compact itself states, it is not legally binding and “is not a performance or assessment tool...nor does it make judgments on performance.”

  • UN Special Representative

In 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission requested the UN Secretary-General to appoint a special representative on business & human rights.  Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Professor John Ruggie of Harvard University to serve as the Special Representative.  Professor Ruggie conducted extensive research and consultations with experts and representatives of governments, business and civil society in various regions of the world.

In 2008, Professor Ruggie proposed to the UN Human Rights Council (which had replaced the Commission) a “policy framework for managing business and human rights…based on three pillars: the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and greater access by victims to effective remedy, judicial and non-judicial.”  The Council welcomed the framework by consensus and mandated Ruggie to make recommendations on ways to operationalise and strengthen the framework.

The Special Representative proposed the Guiding Principles in his final report to the Human Rights Council in 2011, which the Council endorsed by consensus.  All of the Special Representative’s materials, as well as submissions to his mandate and commentaries on his work, are archived on this portal.  Materials about the Guiding Principles since their endorsement by the Council are available on this portal.

  • UN Working Group

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council established a Working Group on business & human rights, of five members.  The Human Rights Council's resolution includes the full mandate of the Working Group.  All materials by and about the Working Group, including submissions to it and commentaries, are available on this portal.

  • Proposed binding treaty and intergovernmental working group

In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted two resolutions:  One established "an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights."  The other requested that the existing UN Working Group on business & human rights prepare a report considering, among other things, the benefits and limitations of legally binding instruments.  We cover the debate over the elaboration of a binding treaty as a "Big Issue" here (see also our "Debate the treaty" blog series).

The work of NGOs and civil society

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local community groups, and advocates across the world are doing critical work monitoring the human rights conduct of companies, publicising abuses, and seeking accountability.  These are not only human rights and labour rights defenders, but also environmentalists, advocates for women's rights and development, and other social justice activists.  In some countries NGOs and advocates risk retaliation by companies or government authorities for their work to hold companies accountable.  Many NGOs have strongly supported resolutions before the UN Human Rights Council, and the work of the Intergovernmental working group that the Council has established, for binding international standards on business & human rights.  Civil society groups also work with some companies on initiatives to promote human rights. 

Lawsuits & complaints mechanisms

Companies that do not respect human rights run an increasing risk of facing human rights litigation.  Initially most of these lawsuits were brought in North America and Europe, but increasingly they are now brought in developing countries.  Over 110 leading business & human rights lawsuits are profiled on our Corporate Legal Accountability Portal.

Many non-judiciary complaints mechanisms are available to resolve disputes over companies and human rights.  The Access Facility collects and explains all these mechanisms.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, a set of voluntary principles including on human rights, provide a complaints procedure.  The Guidelines apply to multinational firms operating in or from the 34 OECD participating countries and 10 non-member countries.

Sectoral initiatives

Companies in a wide range of sectors have joined together, often with the involvement of NGOs, governments and/or international organizations, to enter into voluntary initiatives to address human rights issues.  Some key initiatives include:

Some of the most successful sectoral initiatives involving companies have been led by workers and communities directly impacted, such as:

NGOs and others have also worked directly with companies on sectoral initiatives to drive change by ranking companies on human rights issues:

Groups helping business operationalise human rights

Groups currently helping business operationalise human rights include the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, Business for Social Responsibility, Danish Institute for Human Rights, Institute for Human Rights & Business and Shift.

Previously, the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), a six-year project (2003-2009), “set out to find practical ways of implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a business context.”  BLIHR’s final report stated that it had “come to the conclusion that the common [UN Protect, Respect and Remedy] framework applies to all businesses regardless of where in the world they are operating…”

Human rights policy & implementation by companies

  • Company human rights policies

The Resource Centre documents and encourages the adoption of human rights policy statements by companies; our list now counts over 340 companies that have committed to respecting human rights.

  • Guidance for business 

A broad range of materials have been published to help companies operationalise human rights.  Our pages on implementing the UN Guiding Principles, and our broader Tools & Guidance hub are gateways to such materials.

  • Examples of implementation

The Resource Centre surveyed 200 companies in 2014-15, inviting them to answer a short questionnaire about their policies and practices to improve their respect for human rights, and presented the results on the Company Action Platform, which we are continuing to update as we receive further information from companies.

Governments and national human rights institutions (NHRIs)

The primary duty for protecting human rights from abuses involving companies lies with governments, as the UN Guiding Principles make clear.  

  • Government action to implement the State duty to protect

The Resource surveyed 100 governments in 2014-15, inviting them to answer a short questionnaire about their actions to apply the State duty to protect human rights.  We presented the results on our Government Action Platform, which we are continuing to update as we receive further information from governments.

  • National Action Plans

The UN Working Group on business & human rights encourages governments to adopt National Action Plans (NAPs) on business & human rights as "an important means to promote the implementation of the UNGPs", specifically of the State duty to protect human rights.  Over 30 countries have issued an NAP or initiated processes to develop and adopt one.  We provide complete coverage of NAPs including guidance from the UN Working Group and key civil society actors here.

  • National human rights institutions

NHRIs, such as national human rights commissions, are increasingly turning their attention to the human rights responsibilities of the private sector; the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs has a Working Group on Business and Human Rights.  NHRIs vary, but most can hold hearings on relevant issues; provide a forum to bring together parties to a dispute; facilitate dialogue between business, government and civil society; and many can consider individual complaints.  UN Special Representative on business & human rights John Ruggie commented: “The actual and potential importance of these institutions cannot be overstated.  Where NHRIs are able to address grievances involving companies, they can provide a means to hold business accountable…NHRIs are particularly well-positioned to provide processes...that are culturally appropriate, accessible, and expeditious...[and] can provide information and advice on other avenues of recourse to those seeking remedy."


The adoption of policies, the proliferation of voluntary initiatives, and the recognition that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights represent progress.  But they have not resulted in full respect for human rights by companies.  Greater scrutiny, transparency, remedies for victims and other mechanisms for accountability are still urgently needed – as is much more work by civil society, governments, the United Nations and companies themselves.