The process of globalization and other global developments over the past decades have seen non-state actors such as transnational corporations and other business play an increasingly important role both internationally, but also at the national and local levels. The growing reach and impact of business enterprises have given rise to a debate about the roles and responsibilities of such actors with regard to human rights.
International human rights standards have traditionally been the responsibility of governments, aimed at regulating relations between the State and individuals and groups. But with the increased role of corporate actors, nationally and internationally, the issue of business’ impact on the enjoyment of human rights has been placed on the agenda of the United Nations. Over the past decade, the United Nations human rights machinery has been considering the scope of business’ human rights responsibilities and exploring ways for corporate actors to be accountable for the impact of their activities on human rights. As a result of this process, there is now greater clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of governments and business with regard to protection and respect for human rights. Most prominently, the emerging understanding and consensus have come as a result of the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework on human rights and business, which was elaborated by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, building on major research and extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders, including States, civil society and the business community. On 16 June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for implementing the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, providing – for the first time – a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity.
What OHCHR does
OHCHR's work on the issue of business and human rights is focused on four areas:
1. Advocacy by the High Commissioner
The High Commissioners has expressed support for the development of human rights standards applicable to the business sector, while at the same time advocating the implementation of voluntary initiatives towards corporate social responsibility.
2. Guidance on the interpretation of the Guiding Principles
OHCHR has a mandate to lead the business and human rights agenda within the United Nations system, and, in collaboration with the Working Group, provide guidance on interpretation of the Guiding Principles (A/HRC/RES/21/5). In 2012, OHCHR issued an Interpretive guide to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights: see HR/PUB/12/02. OHCHR has also created introductory presentations on the Guiding Principles in English, French and Spanish available to all stakeholders.
3. Support to the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises
OHCHR provided ongoing support and advice to the work of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights during his mandate from 2005 to 2011.
This mandate was established by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2005 by resolution 2005/69 and was extended by the Human Rights Council by resolution 8/7 in 2008. Please refer to the webpage of the Special Representative for a comprehensive overview of his mandate and for access to all documents, produced by or for the mandate, including non-UN documents, the Special Representative’s speeches and for submissions made to him by different stakeholders.
In resolution 2005/69, the then Commission on Human Rights mandated the High Commissioner, in collaboration with the SRSG, to convene annually a consultation with executives from a particular business sector to discuss the human rights challenges faced by that sector. In November 2005, the High Commissioner convened a consultation with representatives from the extractive sector (see report E/CN.4/2006/92). A second consultation with a particular business sector was held by the High Commissioner in January 2007, convening representatives from the finance sector (see report A/HRC/4/99). Following the request from the Human Rights Council in resolution 8/7, the High Commissioner for Human Rights convened a two-day consultation in October 2009 on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. The meeting brought together the Special Representative, business representatives and all relevant stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations and representatives to discuss ways and means to operationalize the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” Framework on business and human rights presented by the Special Representative to the Human Rights Council in 2008 (see report A/HRC/14/29).
On 16 June 2011 the Human Rights Council in resolution A/HRC/RES/17/4 decided to establish a Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. OHCHR provides ongoing support and advice to the Working Group, which consists of five independent experts, of balanced regional representation, for a period of three years.
4. Active involvement in the United Nations Global Compact
The UN Global Compact is the leading global voluntary initiative for corporate social responsibility that also addresses the issue of business and human rights. It was launched at the initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General in 2000, aimed at getting business leaders to voluntarily promote and apply within their corporate domains nine (now 10) principles relating to human rights, labor standards, the environment, and anti-corruption. At present, several thousand companies, many of them large transnational companies, from all continents have signed on to the Global Compact.
OHCHR is one of now 7 UN agencies which work in a continuing partnership with the Secretary-General's Global Compact office (the other agencies being ILO, UNEP, UNODC, UNDP, UNIDO and UNIFEM). Upon the request of the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, OHCHR has served as "guardian" of the human rights principles since the launch of the Global Compact and has contributed to efforts made to encourage and enable companies to implement these principles in their core operations and business model. OHCHR activities have been grouped around the themes of learning and dialogue. OHCHR is involved in Global Compact governance through its membership of the Global Compact Inter-Agency Team which is responsible for ensuring coherent support for the internalization of the principles within the United Nations and among all participants.
OHCHR has joined the Global Compact Office and other partners in publishing tools for companies participating in the Global Compact on how to understand and implement the human rights principles of the Global Compact. Click on "Tools" in the menu on the right to find OHCHR-supported tools for integrating human rights into the world of business and access a web-based training tool.