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Getting down to business

The Working Group’s central responsibilities are to promote the dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles clarify the obligations and responsibilities of States and businesses in preventing and addressing human rights abuses linked to business activities and provide a road map for both States and businesses on how to meet their respective responsibilities. 

Before their first session, the Working Group invited submissions on how best those goals could be achieved and received responses from more than 80 interested parties.

Addressing the Group’s first meeting in Geneva last month, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay said that the interest demonstrated in its work is “testament to the importance of the issues at the core of your mandate”. Pillay drew attention to the global financial and economic crises, saying they “have brought the interface between human rights and the role of business and financial actors into stark relief.”

In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, providing – for the first time – an authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. At the same time the Council established the Working Group to support States, businesses, civil society and other relevant stakeholders with implementing the Principles.

During the Council meeting, the Working Group convened introductory meetings with representatives of States, businesses and civil society which provided further opportunity to invite input and suggestions from all relevant stakeholders.

The Guiding Principles are based on a framework which includes three key elements, ‘protect, respect and remedy’. The Council resolution adopting the Guiding Principles, explains these as the duty of the State to protect against human rights abuses involving transnational corporations and other businesses; the responsibility of corporations to respect all human rights; and the need for access to effective remedies where rights have been trampled.

The Guiding Principles provide a solid foundation for the implementation of those elements in the standards and practices which govern the full range of business activities and which ultimately lead to a socially sustainable globalization.

Reflecting on the rapid development of the relationship between business and human rights, the Chair of the Working Group, Margaret Jungk said it was not long ago that the prevailing view in the business community was that “human rights is not our concern”. Jungk paid tribute to the work of the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on business and human rights, John Ruggie, saying it had taken great commitment to achieve the “traction which led to the first generation of progress and achievements in the field of human rights and business.”

“The second-generation challenge,” Jungk said, “is to have the Guiding Principles implemented.” Moving from agreement to implementation will be challenging, she predicted, because “99.9 per cent of the world have not yet heard of the Principles”.

Many of the speakers at the open session urged the Group to travel to areas of concern to observe first-hand conditions in different countries and particular attention was drawn to the vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples and of rural and indigenous women. Others called on the Group to ensure that the Guiding Principles were translated into multiple languages so they could be accessed by medium-sized businesses as well as global corporations. The Working Group was also urged to focus on all three pillars of the Guiding Principles, including the State duty to protect.

In her address, Pillay urged the experts to pay particular attention to “the challenges faced by human beings and communities affected by business activities, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized” and “also to take into account the real-life operational and institutional challenges that both states and business can face when it comes to instituting fundamental change.”

9 February 2012

See also