Why and how: Business respect for human rights

More than nine years ago, on 16 November 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council endorsed a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They are based on three pillars: protection, respect and remedy.

These principles embody the standards to which firms should adhere to ensure their business practices do not violate human rights in the pursuit of profit. To comply, corporations must adopt specific procedures and processes related to due diligence, monitoring and remediation.

Even when human rights do not seem directly relevant to a business, a public focus can foster improved trust and credibility among customers, investors, regulators and others.

Why?

In today’s economic climate, we are witnessing a notable deterioration in the protection of human rights at all levels: locally, regionally and internationally—with culprits ranging from commercial enterprises to governments. When public bodies fail to honor such commitments, other social and economic actors often follow their cue, taking advantage of lax regulation. A companion result is a shrinking of space for freedom of expression and dissent by civil society, deterioration of the rule of law and a decline in consumer confidence. In the long run, the lack of an engaged, empowered populace suppresses the health of the overall political and social economy and creates the conditions for an unstable, inhospitable business climate. A commitment to protecting human rights also hep ensuring a level and fair playing field for businesses of all sizes. Thus, a corporate commitment to human rights are in their own best interests.

However, multiple challenges—such as market fluctuations and political opposition to business initiatives—may make it tempting for companies to place human rights protection further down the chain of priorities. To prevent this erosion in compliance, policies must be put in place with robust monitoring and enforcement “teeth.”

How?  

With the mounting challenges that face both governments and institutions- both the profit and non-profit- that prevent them from committing to human rights policies due to either being busy with more urgent matters, or not wanting to restrict their operations, there is an urgent need to integrate these policies in the institutions' strategic plans in a way that ensures the consistency of their activities with these policies.

Businesses should begin by using the lens of the guiding principles to analyze the many ways—both direct and indirect—that their operations could impact human rights, both for employees and customers. This exercise will help companies focus their energies where impact will be the greatest. Political context and the extent to which it complicates or facilitates these adjustments should be factored into the analysis.

Once this assessment, three major steps are recommended:

1) Act with due diligence to adjust policies and practices, using a gender lens to assure equity. Supply chains should be included along with parent company and subsidiary operations. Timely and effective measures must be taken to mitigate any actual or potential violations, monitor the effectiveness of the remedies, and inform customers and other stakeholders.  

2) Act as a role model for other enterprises, especially those in the same industry.

3) Advocate for integration of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into government policies.

Even when human rights do not seem directly relevant to a business, a public focus can foster improved trust and credibility among customers, investors, regulators and others.

In addition, in a global context in which governments are retrenching from or neglecting the protection of human rights, companies can and should fill the void—thus building a trustworthy reputation while also promoting a stable business environment.