Human rights and business–overview

LexisNexis Legal & Professional, LexisNexis UK, LexisPSL, Risk and Compliance, May 16th, 2022
Catherine Innes

Human rights are increasingly acknowledged to be not just a concern for nation states and international organisations, but also a concern for business. Business organisations operate around the world with increasingly complex structures and supply chains. Their operations can have a number of impacts, good and bad, on human rights. This has led to the development of a number of international initiatives aimed at increasing business awareness of, and respect for, human rights.

This Overview introduces the key issues business organisations need to know about human rights. It summarises some of the key human rights standards and initiatives that apply to business and the key actions that business organisations need to take in order to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts.


Human rights standards and initiatives

The UN Global Compact
The United Nations Global Compact  (UNGC) is a voluntary initiative set up in 2000 under the auspices of the United Nations. Its aim is to involve commercial and 'non-business' organisations, such as academic institutions, not-for-profits and public sector organisations, in the promotion of responsible and sustainable business.

Human rights are not the prime focus of the UNGC—it is concerned more broadly with issues of sustainability and the responsibility of organisations, individuals and states to promote a sustainable global economy and advance broader societal goals.

The first two principles of the UNGC do, however, relate explicitly to human rights—businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights and make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses.

See Practice Note: The UN Global Compact and human rights.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
The UNGPs  were developed by a team led by the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, Professor John Ruggie, to implement his 'Protect, respect and remedy' framework, eg:

  • States have a duty to protect human rights
  • businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and
  • there need to be appropriate and effective remedies in place when human rights are breached

The UNGPs are concerned with addressing adverse human rights impacts by business enterprises, ie when the ability of an individual or group of individuals to enjoy their human rights is removed or reduced by the action (or omission) of an organisation.

The UNGPs apply to all nation states and business enterprises without exception (whereas the UN Global Compact is voluntary). The UNGPs do not, however, create legal obligations, although this might change—work is underway on developing a new international treaty on business and human rights.

See Practice Note: The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights—practical compliance.

Other initiatives
Other initiatives that incorporate human rights protections include the:

For more information on these and other initiatives, see Practice Note: What business needs to know about human rights.

Corporate social responsibility vs respect for human rights
Although closely related, corporate social responsibility and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights are two different things.

Corporate social responsibility
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has no precise definition. It means whatever an organisation chooses it to mean. Although in some organisations a CSR programme may be very extensive and cover many of the issues associated with business and human rights, it more often tends to be focused on a limited range of activities, with restricted geography and scope, concerned more with charitable or social goals. It is also entirely voluntary.

Corporate responsibility to respect human rights
The corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the UNGPs, and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, requires an organisation to consider its impact in relation to all internationally recognised human rights across the whole of its business operations and business relationships. It requires ongoing effort to monitor and address impacts and a more systematic approach than CSR. The UNGPs say the responsibility applies to all business organisations.

See Practice Notes: CSR, ESG and human rights reporting and initiatives and The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights—practical compliance.

Identifying internationally recognised human rights
The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights (UNGPs) require businesses to respect internationally recognised human rights. This begs the question: what are the internationally recognised human rights? There is no single definition or list you can refer to. Rather, these are, at a minimum, the rights set out in the:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • International Labour Organization's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work


For a list of applicable human rights, see Practice Note: Identifying internationally recognised human rights.

Human rights due diligence
Implementing the corporate responsibility to respect human rights cannot be achieved without the organisation carrying out some form of human rights due diligence and impact assessment.

The UNGPs envisage a four stage due diligence process consisting of:

  • assessing actual and potential human rights impacts
  • integrating and acting upon the findings
  • tracking responses, and
  • communicating how impacts are addressed

Key to this process is the impact assessment. It should cover adverse human rights impacts, which:

  • the organisation may cause or contribute to through its own activities, or
  • may be directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationships


See Practice Note: How to assess human rights impacts and Precedent: Human rights impact assessment.

Putting the corporate responsibility to respect human rights into practice
Putting the corporate responsibility to respect human rights into practice within an organisation cannot be done in an ad hoc way. It needs to be structured and systematic and must encompass all of the business's operations. The main things any organisation will need to do are:

  • get senior, board-level buy-in—setting the tone from the top is essential
  • train all staff throughout the organisation to a level appropriate to their role
  • communicate publicly on what you have found and the actions you are taking to address issues that have been identified