Business and Human Rights: Towards Greater Accountability

At the time of their establishment, international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social, and cultural rights were intended to hold States accountable to mutually agreed principles. However, the international community’s understanding of human rights has gradually evolved to recognize that although only countries formally sign on to treaties, non-State actors should also abide by international human rights norms.  In a world where large corporations are active on multiple continents and increasingly undertaking functions historically carried out by governments, and where modern media and civil society actors are better poised to document and expose human rights abuses, corporations are increasingly expected to respect the human rights of the individuals and communities affected by their activities, even in the absence of legally binding requirements.

Corporations and Human Rights Abuses

As John Ruggie, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, has noted, businesses may take employees’ identity papers as a means of forcing them to stay at work, provide unsafe working conditions, contaminate the environment that sustains local populations, or employ young children. These harmful activities may not always contravene domestic law in the country where they occur or may be difficult to challenge in national courts, making the applicability of international norms all the more relevant.

In other instances, corporations have been accused of using government security forces, paramilitaries, or private security contractors to protect their property or business interests – including through the use of violence and murder to silence employee and community complaints. Coca-Cola, for example, came under fire when five union members working at a Colombian bottling plant that contracted with Coca-Cola were killed by paramilitary troops hired to squash the unions. Numerous, similar allegations have been leveled against corporations around the world.

Emerging International Standards of Corporate Accountability

In 2008, when expanding the mandate of the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, the Human Rights Council recognized that “transnational corporations and other business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights” and endorsed Special Representative Ruggie’s proposal to adopt the “Promote, Respect, and Remedy” framework of State responsibility to regulate corporate actors’ human rights abuses.

In 2011, Special Representative Ruggie submitted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, also known as the “Ruggie Principles,” which explain how companies should internalize human rights principles and how States can fulfill their obligations consistent with the “Promote, Respect, and Remedy” framework.

The Human Rights Council endorsed the Ruggie Principles and created the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises to work towards their effective implementation.  The Working Group’s experts visit two countries per year (upon invitation) to assess local businesses’ respect for human rights.  Although the Working Group can be valuable in terms of collecting information, its power is limited; the Group cannot investigate or act on individual cases of alleged human rights violations.

The Human Rights Council also convenes annual meetings to address human rights in the business context, welcoming the participation of state actors, civil society, and business leaders.  The first annual Business and Human Rights Forum will be held in December, 2012.  The provisional agenda allocates time for discussion of how the global community can ensure business respect for human rights, and for evaluating progress and challenges in the implementation of the Ruggie Principles.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also recognizes corporations’ role in human rights.  Beginning in 2005, the Commissioner meets annually with corporate executives from a particular sector and publishes case studies on business and human rights. The OHCHR is also one of seven UN agencies responsible for the Global Compact, a series of 10 principles laying out how corporations should behave with respect to human rights, labor, the environment, and anti-corruption practices.  Currently, 8,700 corporations and other stakeholders from more than 130 countries have pledged their commitment to the Compact.  The Compact is meant to serve as a complement to legal regulations, providing a holistic framework for companies to think about human rights and related issues when conducting business, and “catalyz[ing] business actions in support of broader UN goals, including the Millennium Development Goals.”

The language of the Global Compact – “businesses should” rather than “businesses shall” – reflects the fact that it is not legally binding on businesses.  However, this doesn’t mean the Compact is ineffective.  Since the Compact’s creation in 2000, the Global Compact team has set up local networks focused on knowledge sharing in countries with member corporations.  The annual Global Compact report profiles myriad events and achievements.  For example, the 2011 report notes that in September 2011, 19 Kenyan businesses signed the Kenya National Energy Accord, an initiative to encourage major energy consumers to commit to reduction in exchange for government incentives.

The OHCHR-backed Guide for Integrating Human Rights into Business Management translates the Compact’s 10 principles into tools, references, and case studies so that companies can better integrate the Compact’s principles into their management structures.  Similarly, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe based its new section on human rights in its own guidelines for multinational corporations on the Ruggie Principles.

Voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility

Some corporations voluntarily and publicly commit themselves to adhering to best practices, allowing third parties to monitor them to ensure compliance with established standards.  Organizations like Social Accountability International create standards covering issues like child labor, working hours, and disciplinary practices, and certify companies who meet those standards through ongoing monitoring.

In addition to signing on to established standards, companies like BP now commonly include human rights norms in their internal polices.  For example, in addition to its Human Rights Primer, Shell disseminates a handbook of Human Rights Dilemmas that lays out case studies and questions to consider when resolving conflicts between business practices and human rights.

As High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay explains, “[t]he corporate responsibility to respect human rights is the basic expectation society has of business.”  As corporations have become larger and carry more political clout, governments and civil society cannot help but acknowledge their power to commit widespread human rights abuses, or set the tone for respecting human rights.  The reactions stemming from this recognition are far from perfect and often rely on corporations’ voluntary compliance.  Still, as the above mechanisms indicate, corporations are increasingly facing accountability both voluntarily and involuntarily, and they can now better utilize the human rights framework as it is interpreted and expanded to meet their particular challenges.

For additional information about the nexus between human rights and businesses, see the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.