UN Human Rights Council Endorses Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights on June 16. The Guiding Principles are designed to ensure that companies do not violate human rights when conducting business, and that states protect human rights. Although not law, the Guiding Principles “are likely to influence national law and policy in jurisdictions around the world,” according to csrandthelaw.com.

The Guiding Principles also outline how states and companies should implement the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, which is based on three pillars:

  1. The state has a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication
  2. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means avoiding infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts that occur
  3. Greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial

The Guiding Principles are a result of six years of research led by the U.N. Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie of Harvard University. The Special Representative’s mandate was created in 2005 by the UNHCR’s predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The research for the Principles involved governments, companies, business association and civil society, and is based on 47 consultations and site visits in over 20 countries.

“The Council’s endorsement establishes the guiding principles as the authoritative global reference point for business and human rights,” said Ruggie. “They will also provide civil society, investors and others the tools to measure real progress in the daily lives of people.”

During Ruggie’s final presentation of the Guiding Principles on May 30, 2011, he contrasted what the Framework and the Principles do. The Framework addresses what states and companies “need to do to ensure business respect for human rights,” and Principles address “how we move from concept to practical, positive results on the ground,” Ruggie said.

“The principles seek to provide for the first time a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity, by outlining what States and business enterprises should do in practice,” Ruggie said.

Human rights groups criticize Guiding Principles for not being strong enough

Scott Jerbi, Director of Communications for the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) called the endorsement of the Guiding Principles a “game changer.” However, other human rights organizations, while applauding the UN for endorsing the Principles, criticize them for not being strong enough.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that the UNHRC “squandered an opportunity to take meaningful action to curtail business-related human rights abuses.” HRW specifically criticized the UNHRC for not putting a mechanism in place to “ensure that the basic steps to protect human rights in the Guiding Principles are put into practice.”

“In effect, the council endorsed the status quo: a world where companies are encouraged, but not obliged, to respect human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Guidance isn’t enough – we need a mechanism to scrutinize how companies and governments apply these principles.”

Souhayr Belhassen, President of International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) criticized the Guiding Principles for failing “to sufficiently address victims dire need to access effective remedies.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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