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Making Human Rights the Responsibility of your Business

Published: Thursday, January 06, 2011

Late last year when United Nations Special Representative, Harvard Professor John Ruggie, tabled his Guiding Principles for the Implementation of the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, I realized that a new era was upon us.  The Guiding Principles are open for feedback until the end of January with the final framework scheduled to be presented by Professor Ruggie to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June, 2011.

If you care about your business you will want to add John Ruggie's Guiding Principles to your reading list.  The document is a very easy-to-read 27 pages.

Guiding Principles Framework

For ease of reference, and to establish their context, the Guiding Principles are grounded in recognition of:

a. States' primary role in promoting and protecting all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including with regard to the operations of business enterprises;

b. The role of business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions, required to comply with all applicable laws and meet the societal expectation to not infringe on the human rights of others;

c. The reality that rights and obligations have little meaning unless they are matched to appropriate and effective remedies when breached.

Guiding Principles Structure

The Guiding Principles document is divided into three sections.  Following the Introduction, there is an in depth discussion of the responsibilities of states, referring to both industrialized and developing country governments, for business and for human rights.

The third section of the Guiding Principles speaks to corporate responsibility to respect human rights and to address adverse human rights impacts caused by or contributed to by business decisions.  This responsibility applies across a business enterprise's activities, regardless of business size and through its relationships with third parties associated with those activities.

It's the first week of the first year of a new decade.  There can be no better time for reflection, revision, and renewal of plans and strategies to complement a new business era. 

Guiding Principles Implications

The implications of the Guiding Principles are far-reaching, and will encourage the adoption of a principled perspective during planning, design, management, monitoring and evaluation of business operations.  Perhaps the biggest challenge for businesses will be acquiring essential knowledge to equip employees throughout their operations with a full appreciation of human rights, beyond a cursory understanding of "to do no harm".  Otherwise, it will be difficult to hold businesses accountable for their impact on human rights without some assurance of their competence of the situation of rights holders where they do business. 

We are entering an era which will require businesses to apply a rights-based framework to their operations; to apply a rights-based lens through which they open their doors for business.

How prepared for this transition do you think businesses will be?


photo credit: Hugo WernerEduardo Almedia's Collage, March 2007 via Flickr


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