Corporate liability for human rights: the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

If a corporation abuses employees, is accused of labour trafficking, complicit in gross human rights abuses by local governments, complicit of human rights violations while installing pipelines through villages or complicit in pollution, it should be held responsible. The question is if human rights laws also apply to these companies.

Some argue that international law only applies between states, or that human rights obligations apply only to states, and that the UN Principles cannot create legal obligations for companies. However, this view can no longer be credibly maintained. There is a growing acceptance that international human rights treaties create obligations – at least indirectly – on companies and that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can be used as a standard.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights are the work of John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. The principles are non-legally binding, but aim to establish a global standard for addressing the adverse human rights impact of corporate activity. Ruggie has built a frame-work of three pillars: ‘ Protect, Respect and Remedy’.  These are:
The state’s duty to protect human rights;
the corporate responsibility to respect human rights;
the need for greater access to remedy – both judicial and non-judicial- for victims of business-related abuse.

The UN principles were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. See also  (http://www.unglobalcompact.org/Issues/human_rights/The_UN_SRSG_and_the_UN_Global_Compact.html)
and the American Bar Association in February 2012.  They have also been incorporated into the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 26000 guidance on social responsibility for companies , the sustainability policy of the International Finance Corporations and the European Commission’s new corporate social responsibility strategy.

The UN Principles are applicable to all governments and to all businesses in all situations. It sets forth basic, minimal business obligations regarding human rights. They reaffirm that states still bear the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights, but recognize that transnational corporations and other businesses, as organs of society (and collections of individuals), carry responsibilities as well. It is understood that the human rights are – at a minimum – those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights  and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises:
Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impact through their own activities , and address such impact when it occurs;
Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights violations that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those violations.
In order to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, business enterprises should have in place policies and processes appropriate to their size and circumstances.

It is clear that the time has come for a stronger international framework for corporate accountability. The UN Principles are a significant contribution to this.  It provides a useful tool for lawyers dealing with human rights issues where corporations are involved.

Amsterdam, 12 May
Antoinette Collignon

2 comments so far

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