What’s So Special about the United Nations Approach to Business and Human Rights?

By Michael Addo, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

The United Nations Approach to Business and Human Rights

The United Nations has pondered and contemplated the subject of business and human rights for decades with rather little success. Until 2005 that is, when the Human Rights Council requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative to “identify and clarify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability with regard to human rights.” This task fell on Professor John Ruggie who proposed, in 2008, a policy framework known as the Protect, Respect, and Remedy Framework.

This policy framework is based on three structural pillars, firstly, the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties including business enterprises; secondly, the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights which requires businesses to avoid infringing on the human rights of others and thirdly, access to effective remedy for anyone whose rights are violated or adversely affected. In 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted 31 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that elaborate on ways of operationalizing the three pillars of the Protect, Respect, Remedy framework.

The Framework and the Guiding Principles do not create new normative standards but elaborate “the implications of existing standards and practices that are integrated within a single, logically coherent and comprehensive template; identifying where the current regime falls short and how it should be improved”. Further, the Guiding Principles propose a co-operative and integrative approach to the reconciliation of competing stakeholder claims. In this respect, the Guiding Principles recognize the contribution of every stakeholder to the effective avoidance and remediation of adverse human rights impacts.

The UN Protect, Respect and Remedy (PRR) policy framework and its operational Guiding Principles respond to a challenging environment for the conduct of business in which there are diverse governance regimes with varying levels of effectiveness. There are numerous voluntary initiatives such as corporate codes, civil society guidelines, industry and multi-stakeholder initiatives and some intergovernmental regimes such as the OECD Guidelines, the ILO Tripartite Declaration and the UN Global Compact. Raising the question as to why the United Nations has chosen to propose another layer of governance in its PRR Framework and Guiding Principles?

The PRR Framework and Guiding Principles are not just another layer of corporate governance but a sophisticated and refined synthesis of existing standards and mechanisms that integrate both voluntary and legally compelling standards – a so-called smart mix – and thus give the UN regime far more flexibility and adaptability. Secondly, its definition of complementary responsibilities for all stakeholders represents a strategy of shared commitment by all stakeholders to ensure the effective application of the Guiding Principles. Furthermore, the shared stakeholder responsibility is complemented by the empowerment of every stakeholder to adjust its environment as it relates to business in order to take account of the Framework and the Guiding Principles. Equally compelling is the fact that the Guiding Principles having received the firm endorsement of all stakeholders, ranging from states, businesses community, civil society groups and affected groups indicates an entirely different level of commitment to be distinguished from other known ones.

To ensure the robustness of the GPs regime, the Human Rights Council elected a group of experts – the Working Group on Business and Human Rights – to promote the dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles alongside identifying and promoting the exchange of good practices and lessons learned on their implementation. For this mandate the Working Group has undertaken two successful country visits to Mongolia and the United States, the lessons from these visits are set out in its reports to the Human Rights Council. Two further visits are planned for Ghana and Russia in 2013. In addition, the Working Group guides an Annual Forum on business and human rights, the first of which took place in December 2012 and brought together one thousand participants from over 80 countries representing all key stakeholder groups. The Forum offers an excellent opportunity for sharing experiences concerning the GPs. To ensure a truly global sharing of lessons, the Working Group plans to undertake regional Forums in Latin America, Africa and Asia with the emerging lessons fed into the Annual Forum.

The UN approach to business and human rights has fostered a growing consensus about the importance of human rights in sustainable development and this has been endorsed by leading stakeholders as reflected in the generous uptake by intergovernmental institutions, national regimes and private corporations.

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