The business of human rights


The government’s decision to launch an action plan on business and human rights is a welcome one. As businesses have expanded their operations into increasingly challenging parts of the world, there has been some confusion as to the respective roles of state and business in protecting and respecting human rights, so it is encouraging to see the UK taking the lead and offering guidance.

For some time, when it comes to taking responsibility for protecting human rights, there has been an accountability gap between state and business with a perception in the corporate world, that human rights are the concern of the state not business.

Yet with companies facing media exposure, class actions and in some cases criminal prosecutions for human rights violations, this is clearly a corporate issue. Social media in particular places businesses at a far greater risk of reputational damage than was previously the case. Companies are less able to hide their activities and hope that any damaging incident will not come to light.  Despite this, action has been slow.

The United Nations published John Ruggie’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rightsin 2011. That the UK was the first country, some two years later, to set out guidance to companies on integrating human rights into their operation, is indicative of where this sits on the international ‘to do‘ list.

When GoodCorporation debated the issue at the House of Lords some 20 months ago, very few companies had human rights policies or conducted human rights due diligence, although some were beginning to review this in light of the United Nations guidelines.

We welcome the Government’s advice to businesses to honour the principles of internationally recognised human rights and to treat as a legal compliance issue, the risk of causing or contributing to human rights violations, wherever they operate.

The Government also advises businesses to conduct appropriate due diligence to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights risks in all areas of their operation.  Businesses are already conducting increasing due diligence throughout their operation and in particular on third parties, in order to comply with growing health and safety, anti-corruption and labour standards legislation. Human rights should now become a key component of this activity and treated as seriously as if it was law. It may only be a matter of time before Ruggie’s principles become embedded in laws such as the Companies Act.

GoodCorporation recommends that businesses need to take several key steps in order to comply with the UK guidance and develop a robust human rights framework within their organisations.

  • Nominate an individual with responsibility for Human Rights within the organisation
  • Ensure that an effective Human Rights programme forms part of the Code of Conduct or the overall Ethics Policy
  • Conduct a thorough Human Rights Impact Analysis
  • Conduct regular fact finding and monitoring to ensure that policies are working

As William Hague said when he launched the guidelines “Doing business with respect for human rights matters. It’s good for people, for prosperity and for the UK.”