Society is increasingly concerned about how business activities have impacts on human rights. Company stakeholders, ranging from employees and customers to investors and governments, expect and demand that companies integrate human rights in their business practices. In an effort to respond to these calls, companies have committed themselves to voluntary initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact and by referring to human rights in their codes of business principles.
Yet for many companies it remains a challenge to embed human rights in their day-to-day operations. In some of the places they do business, the rule of law is non-existent, not enforced or in conflict with international human rights. As a result, merely respecting local law may not always be a sustainable approach. Until recently, no common understanding or standard existed by which companies could understand their responsibilities in such contexts.
However, in June 2008, the United Nations made an important contribution to the business and human rights debate. It unanimously endorsed the framework Protect, Respect and Remedy, proposed by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie. It consists of three pillars:
1. The state duty to protect against human rights abuses, including those by business;
2. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and
3. The need for better access to remedy when corporate-related abuses have occurred.
The framework has received wide uptake by governments, business, civil society and others. It represents the first formal affirmation of the responsibilities of business with respect to human rights by the United Nations. Companies are well advised to pay close attention to the framework and its evolution leading up to Ruggie’s final report in 2011 and the years following.