Wednesday, June 22, 2011

United Nations' nod to business Principles: efforts to change business practices continue

(Delighted to welcome back alumna Nadia Bernaz, who contributes this guest post)

The United Nations Human Rights Council has endorsed a new set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Last week's vote was a key moment for the booming area of business and human rights.
The Guiding Principles were prepared by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. They are Guiding Principles for the implementation of the United Nations' Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework, which the Council adopted in 2008 after three years of work and worldwide consultations with various stakeholders.
As described in prior IntLawGrrls posts available here, the Framework is based on the idea that states, and in particular the states of incorporation of multinational corporations, are under an international obligation to ensure corporations do not violate fundamental human rights when operating domestically or abroad (Protect). Additionally, corporations themselves must respect human rights, which means acting with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and addressing harms that do occur (Respect).
Finally, states and companies must ensure that effective grievance mechanisms, both judicial and non-judicial, are available for victims of abuses (Remedy).
The Framework and Guiding Principles are aimed both at governments and at businesses of all sizes -- not only multinational corporations. The two instruments set up human rights standards and suggest ways for businesses to comply through the adoption of specific policies. Businesses are encouraged to:
► Make policy statements on human rights, which should be approved at the most senior level and widely communicated;
► Follow up on these statements; and, generally speaking,
► Communicate with respect to their human rights records.
This is easier said than done.
Businesses tend to dread attracting attention on their performances in this area, lest possible flaws expose them to the scrutiny of human rights NGOs and ensuing public relations nightmares. While this is changing, a prevalent idea within the corporate world is that human rights are for the government to deal with and that, in any event, corporate social responsibility departments are there to minimize adverse social impacts, keeping their activities separated from real business – the one that makes money. Yet, the Guiding Principles are about incorporating human rights considerations in business operations themselves, which will no doubt require full endorsement from business.
It will not be an easy journey, but the Guiding Principles are a great starting point. Their adoption should be welcomed by those who have been working to put human rights at the heart of global business.

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