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An authoritative global framework on business and human rights turns 10

17 June 2021


The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have led to game-changing progress on how to do business with respect for human rights. The Guiding Principles, which were published ten years ago, were unprecedented in their wide endorsement and effect. “This has become a globally accepted framework that everyone can rally behind,” said Lene Wendland, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office’s Business and Human Rights Unit.

Ten years ago the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) changed the expectations of how companies should do business. Before the Guiding Principles, the extent to which human rights applied to business was once a divisive and polarizing topic. The UNGPs quickly became the global standard for States and companies to use as their universal manual to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses connected with business activities.  

Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the UNGPs provide a common language for all stakeholders regarding the expected roles of businesses and States in relation to human rights, said Lene Wendland, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office’s Business and Human Rights Unit. 

“This has become a globally accepted framework that everyone can rally behind,” Wendland said. 

Today, the UNGPs is the most downloaded publication in the UN Human Rights Office, being accessed more than 400,000 times. 

To build on the progress made and address challenges, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights launched the UNGPs 10+Project to take a deeper look at the last ten years and prepare a “roadmap for the next decade” for States and businesses.

Wendland said unusually, the guiding principles were quick to be taken up on so many levels. 

“There has been this uptake of the UNGPs core content through channels that could compel or incentivize businesses to comply,” Wendland said. 

Before the UNGPs, businesses didn’t know what human rights had to do with them, said Surya Deva,Vice Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

“We couldn’t expect businesses to respect human rights unless they knew what their responsibilities were and what language to use,” Deva said.  

In the years following the Council’s endorsement of the UNGPs, there was little consensus among civil society of the benefits of the framework, and Governments were also unclear of their responsibility, according to Dante Pesce, Chair of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights. 

“Today, we have a societal consensus that they’re authoritative, positive, relevant and they add a lot of value,” Pesce said. “Governments, global unions, companies, and national employer associations are in support of what they bring, the lens that they offer, and their call for a smart mix of law and policy to ensure business respect for human rights.”

Business organizations have been an integral part of the UNGPs process and dissemination, said Matthias Thorns, Deputy Secretary-General of the International Organization of Employers (IOE).

“I don’t know any big company now who isn’t thinking about due diligence,” he said. Thorns also said it has changed the debate with investors who are now thinking about these Principles when they are investing their money.

Large tech companies are increasingly using the Principles. This is why in the last two years, the UN Human Rights Office launched the B-Tech project to increase focus on the business and human rights dimension to tech. 

“We are working with the largest tech companies in the world to look at the practical implications of the UNGPs inside these companies,” Wendland said. “The flexibility of the UNGPs makes them readily applicable to different sectors.”

While large scale companies have significant incentives to address their environment and societal risks, Pesce added, it’s the small and medium-sized enterprises that need to be guided. To do this, States need to ensure political coherence on both international and national levels. 

“When Governments don’t lead by example, they lose authority to regulate the private sector,” Pesce said.

There are also systemic problems such as poverty, climate change, and child labour, according to Deva.

“In big companies, there is inequality if the CEO is making 700 times more in pay than the employees,” Deva said. “Tobacco companies will respect the UNGPs by eliminating child labour. But, how can they respect the right to health? We are unlikely to achieve the UNGPs if we have these inequalities.” 

Thorns called for system-wide responses from Governments and trade unions. Some Governments are taking action. Countries around Europe in particular are passing mandatory human rights due diligence laws requiring companies to implement due diligence procedures to prevent environmental and human rights abuses in their supply chains.  

Over the next decade, the UN Human Rights Office will work on strengthening uptake of the UNGPs such as by providing advice, tools, and resources, helping build capacity and ensure policy coherence, and supporting human rights mechanisms in their efforts to move the business and human rights agenda forward.

17 June 2021

Join us on 29 June, 16:00-18:00 (CEST), for a Human Rights Council panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, with Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; John Ruggie, former UN Special Representative on business & human rights; Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights; Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation; María Fernanda Garza, International Chamber of Commerce; and Joan Carling, Indigenous Peoples Rights International.