The Bhopal disaster in 1984 and the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 are examples of how human rights violations in the private sector can cause huge loss of life. In the wake of events such as these and other human rights violations by the private sector, civil society has increasingly called for companies to be held accountable to human rights standards. If companies had been held accountable to such standards, these disasters may never have happened.
Within existing international human rights law, states are the primary duty-bearer and private actors are only indirectly obliged to abide by human rights law, generally through state legislation. This has led to many companies believing that their only obligation is to respect national laws, even where those laws have failed to meet international human rights standards.
In June 2011 this debate was put to an end when the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. The UNGPs rest on three pillars:
- The state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business;
- The corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and
- Access by affected people to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.
These guidelines are an authoritative starting point in defining human rights responsibilities within the private sector. Whilst businesses are not being asked to take on the same responsibilities as governments, they are still expected to respect human rights and provide remedy in cases of human rights violations.
Codes and standards related to companies and human rights have proliferated in recent years. This trend has been picked up by governments, who have started passing related legislation, and investors, who have started requesting that companies disclose data on their human rights performance.
The UN Global Compact Network UK's Business and Human Rights Programme aims to support businesses to better understand and apply human rights standards in their operations.
Our programme includes, but is not limited to, the following activities:
- Modern Slavery Working Group;
- European UN Global Compact Local Networks Business and Human Rights Peer Learning Group;
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group;
- Gender Equality Accelerator Programme;
- Child Labour Working Group;
- PACE Consortium.
We welcome suggestions if there is anything you would like to see us cover in our B&HR Programme. Please contact Head of Social Sustainability, Bee Delgado.