The UN Global Compact and human rights

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

The UN 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. Organisations which sign up to the UNGC pledge to:

United Nations Global Compact

  • operate responsibly, in accordance with ten principles of sustainability encompassing human rights, labour, the environment, and anti-corruption
  • take actions to support the society around them
  • demonstrate top-level commitment, including a published commitment from the CEO or equivalent (with support from the board), to embed the ten principles in the strategy, culture and day-to-day operations of the organisation and engage in projects to advance the broader UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • report annually on the organisation's efforts and progress
  • engage locally in places where they have a presence

Over 15,000 organisations in more than 160 countries are signed up to the UNGC, including such diverse organisations as The Coca Cola Company, Grant Thornton and RELX Group plc.


The ten principles of the UN Global Compact

Signatories to the UNGC agree to operate in accordance with ten principles derived from the:

UN: Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Labour Organisation: Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
UN: Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
UN Convention against Corruption

The principles are split into four categories covering human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption:

UNGC: The ten principles

Human rights

Principle 1: businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights

Principle 2: businesses should make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses


Principle 3: businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining

Principle 4: the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour

Principle 5: the effective abolition of child labour

Principle 6: the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation


Principle 7: businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges

Principle 8: undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility

Principle 9: encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies


Principle 10: businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery


The UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000 with the aim of meeting the development needs of the world's poorest people. The MDGs had a target deadline of 2015. In 2015, agreement was reached by all 193 members of the UN to adopt 'Agenda 2030', including a new set of seventeen goals to be achieved by 2030.

The SDGs are broader in scope than the MDGs. They apply to all countries and cover more areas, including labour, climate change and the environment, justice, and sustainable consumption and production. One of the key differences between the MDGs and the SDGs is that the SDGs explicitly call on private sector businesses to take action to realise them—whether or not they have signed up to the UNGC.

Organisations that have signed up to the UNGC must commit to engage in projects to advance the SDGs.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?
The 17 SDGs are:

No poverty

Zero hunger

Good health and well-being

Quality education

Gender equality

Clean water and sanitation

Affordable and clean energy

Decent work and economic growth

Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Reduced inequalities

Sustainable cities and communities

Responsible consumption and production

Climate action

Life below water

Life on land

Peace, justice and strong institutions

Partnerships for the goals


Who do the Sustainable Development Goals apply to?
The SDGs apply to everyone in every country, including:

  • governments and the public sector
  • private sector organisations
  • individuals


Are the Sustainable Development Goals legally binding?
Although the SDGs are stated to apply to everyone in every country, this does not mean to say they are legally binding. Rather, they represent an ambitious call to action to tackle global issues such as eradicating poverty, promoting health, education and equality, and protecting the environment.

Business and the Sustainable Development Goals
The UN sees the involvement of private sector business as crucial to achievement of the SDGs. The first element for an organisation, it says, is to act responsibly, including incorporating the ten UNGC principles into the organisation's strategy and operations. Beyond that, however, it is for individual organisations to find opportunities to engage in projects that support the goals.

The UNGC has published what it calls the 'SDG Toolbox', with extensive materials to help organisations identify opportunities to advance the SDGs. The SDG Toolbox includes guidance, case studies, project ideas and other resources for each of the SDGs. There are also sector-specific materials/examples for some industry sectors, such as food, beverages and consumer goods, financial services and healthcare and life sciences.

UNGC: SDG Toolbox
UNGC: The SDG Compass
UNGC: SDG Industry Matrix
RELX Group plc: SDG Resource Centre

The SDG Toolbox contains numerous examples of sustainability projects an organisation might consider supporting or participating in. As such, it is not exclusively targeted at UNGC signatories and any organisation might find it useful as part of a corporate responsibility initiative.

Another useful source of information on the SDGs is the RELX Group SDG Resource Centre .


The UN Global Compact and human rights issues

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

However, the responsibility of business to respect human rights, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , is now widely recognised. It is also increasingly reflected in domestic legislation and industry guidance. A key factor in respecting human rights is avoiding complicity or being implicated in abuses.

With this in mind, the first two principles of the UNGC relate explicitly to human rights—businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. Several other principles, eg principles 3 to 6 (Labour) also cover human rights issues.

Organisations that sign up to the UNGC therefore need to investigate, analyse and, crucially, understand, the human rights impact of their operations and business relationships. They then need to address any adverse issues that arise. Participants should have human rights policies in place and should report meaningfully on their performance, including in their annual Communication on Progress (see: Annual reporting below).


Signing up to the UN Global Compact

There is no obligation to sign up to the UNGC. However, many thousands of organisations have chosen to do so.

The signing up process itself is relatively straightforward, although the work required 'behind the scenes' to then embed the principles and SDGs within the organisation will be considerable.

CEO commitment letter
The first step in signing up to the UNGC is for the organisation's CEO (or equivalent in a public sector, non-profit or similar organisation) to publish a 'commitment letter'. A template letter is available on the UNGC website. The letter, which must be addressed to the UN Secretary General, should commit the organisation to:

UNGC: Letter of commitment, Business
UNGC: Letter of commitment, Non-business

  • support the UNGC and the ten principles
  • take action to advance the SDGs
  • publish a Communication on Progress (COP) within one year of the initial commitment and annually thereafter

The letter must be on the organisation's official letterhead and it must be issued with full support of the governing board of the organisation.

Online application form
The organisation must complete an online application form. There are two different forms on the UNGC website, depending on whether the organisation is commercial or 'non-business'. The organisation must supply various information including:

UNGC website: Application page

  • employee numbers
  • ownership/organisation type
  • annual sales/revenue (business organisations only)
  • business sector (business organisations) or mission statement (non-business organisations)
  • country
  • the main contact point within the organisation, and
  • contact details for the CEO or equivalent.

Financial commitment
Larger companies are now required by the UNGC to make a financial contribution to the UNGC. A page on the business organisation online application  form sets out required amounts for different turnover brackets.

An invoice for the financial contribution is sent to the organisation’s financial contact once the organisation has been accepted to the UNGC.

Organisations that cannot join the UN Global Compact
The UNGC does not accept applications from companies:

  • involved in the sale, manufacture and distribution of antipersonnel landmines or cluster bombs
  • on UN sanctions lists
  • blacklisted by UN Procurement for ethical reasons
  • involved in the production or manufacture of tobacco

Subsidiaries of participating organisations can either participate through their parent company or can sign up in their own right.

UNGC: Subsidiary engagement policy

The UN Global Compact Management Model

The UN Global Compact Management Model was launched in 2010. Once an organisation has decided to commit to the UNGC, the Management Model sets out a framework the organisation can use to help incorporate the ten principles into its business strategy and translate them into operational practice.

UN Global Compact: Management Model

Depending on the sector and geography in which the organisation operates, the scale of this task cannot be underestimated.


Annual reporting

On signing up to the UNGC, business organisations commit to publish a Communication on Progress (COP) within one year of the date they join, and then annually thereafter. The date by which each subsequent COP must be published is taken from the date of the previous COP.

UN Global Compact: COP Policy
UN Global Compact: COE Policy

Non-business organisations must publish a Communication on Engagement (COE) within two years of the date they join and then at least every two years thereafter, although annual reporting is encouraged.

The COP or COE must as a minimum include:

  • a statement from the CEO or equivalent role-holder setting out the organisation's continuing support and ongoing commitment to the UNGC and its principles
  • a description of the practical actions the organisation has taken to implement the ten principles in each of the four areas they cover (human rights, labour, environment, anti-corruption), or an explanation if the organisation has not taken action in any particular area
  • a measurement of outcomes (eg to what degree targets/performance indicators have been met by the organisation)

There is currently no set format for the COP or COE, although the UNGC has indicated it is planning to make reporting more standardised from 2023. It can be prepared in any language. It may be a standalone document, or form part of a wider social responsibility or sustainability report or the organisation's annual report to shareholders.

COPs are classified by the UNGC as:

  • GC advanced—COP meets the minimum requirements plus covers the organisation’s implementation of advanced criteria and best practice
  • GC active—COP meets the minimum requirements

In this context GC stands for Global Compact, rather than General Counsel.

As soon as the COP or COE is submitted it will appear on the UNGC website . The UNGC also strongly encourages organisations to communicate the terms of their COP/COE directly to stakeholders, eg as part of the annual reporting exercise, through stakeholder forums or on the organisation's website.

A business organisation that submits a COP which does not meet the minimum requirements will be given a one-time, 12-month grace period to submit a new COP that meets all the requirements. This is known as a ‘learner’ grace period.

If an organisation is going to miss its deadline for submitting the COP/COE, it can request an extension of time by a further 90 days. The reasons for late submission must be included in the extension request or 'grace letter'. The UNGC has a template grace letter  for this purpose. If the deadline is missed, the organisation is classified as 'non-communicating' and if it remains non-communicating for more than a year, can be expelled from the UNGC. A grace letter can be submitted more than once, but not in two consecutive years.

UN Global Compact, Grace letter submission guide


All COPs, COEs and grace letters are available on the UNGC website as are details of non-communicating and expelled organisations.