10 years of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights

Looking back on a decade of change and raising the bar moving forward

Published: 16 Jun 2021
Author: James Gomme
Type: Insight

Geneva, 16 June: On 16 June 2021 the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) - the global standard on business responsibility to respect human rights - celebrated their 10th anniversary.

This milestone presents an opportunity for governments and businesses alike to take stock of their performance over the course of the last decade when it comes to protecting and respecting human rights that may be affected negatively by business activity. It also provides us with an important moment to think about the road ahead and reflect upon the critical role that respect for human rights has to play both in terms of guiding our efforts to build back better in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in keeping our ambitions to realize the Sustainable Development Goals on track.

Looking back: laying the foundations for mandatory human rights due diligence

Although in and of themselves the UNGPs do not represent a legally binding framework, their importance and impact over the course of the last decade should not be understated. The unanimous endorsement of the UNGPs by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 16 June 2011 represented a clear “big bang” moment which has given rise to an unfolding universe of stakeholder expectation, legislative developments, investor interest and business action.

Before 2011 the notion that businesses had human rights responsibilities was contested by companies and governments alike. Today the situation is markedly different, with human rights due diligence (HRDD) – the main management tool put forward by the UNGPs for companies to know and show that they respect human rights – increasingly being mandated into hard law, as has been clearly evidenced in just the last few weeks with new legislation being passed in Germany and Norway respectively.

On the business side, we have seen a clear mainstreaming of business action on human rights with mechanisms such as policy commitments, human rights training and risk assessments now routinely underway in many enterprises. While significant progress has undoubtedly been made, there is still much work to be done, with many companies still struggling to translate policy into performance. The 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, which assesses the human rights disclosures of 229 companies globally, found that while a large number of companies are meeting the fundamental expectations of the UNGPs with strong commitments and rigorous human rights procedures in place, performance in terms of human rights due diligence continues to be poor for the majority of companies.

The need for enhanced performance is also a theme running through a report published today by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights that takes stock of progress made over the past decade. This analysis points to an urgent and continued need to step up efforts to drive respect for human rights more broadly across value chains - including among small and medium-sized enterprises - and also to tackle human rights issues across the informal economy more substantially.

Despite the challenges that lay ahead, the last ten years have underlined the transformative power of the UNGPs; we have seen that change is possible. Business now needs to take action to accelerate the pace of change, to translate policy into performance and to ensure that decision-making at the corporate level has tangible positive impacts on the lives of vulnerable individuals throughout global value chains.

Looking forward: WBCSD’s continued support and advocacy for business action

Corporate respect for human rights sits at the heart of WBCSD’s Vision 2050: Time to Transform a framework for business action in line with the urgency of the challenges we face as a global society. One of the things Vision 2050 provides companies with is a common understanding of what a sustainable future will look and feel like in practice. As part of this we have clearly articulated a vision of a world in which everyone’s dignity and rights are respected, basic needs are met, and equal opportunities are available for all.

As part of our efforts to make this vision a reality WBCSD is committed to continuing to support leading businesses and partner organizations to raise the bar on human rights performance. Our ongoing efforts to support the global business community in this regard include:

  • Engaging business leaders to move from aspiration to action: Our CEO Guide to Human Rights highlights the role of business leadership in raising the bar on human rights performance, embedding human rights into corporate culture, setting clear expectations of suppliers and business partners and driving meaningful engagement and collaborations with peers, governments as well as civil society. The Guide includes a Call to Action that is backed by the signatures of 56 top executives across our membership – representing companies headquartered across 23 countries, with over 4.3 million direct employees, and extensive value chains across the world.
  • Supporting best practice across geographies and sectors: WBCSD continues to work closely with the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) to support B2B peer learning on human rights risk management across operations and value chains in a range of geographies including Brazil, India and Southeast Asia. We are also working to advance HRDD performance across specific sectors with a particular focus on agricultural supply chains through our Global Agribusiness Action on Equitable Livelihoods project.
  • Membership criteria: In 2020 WBCSD upgraded its membership conditions to include a set of new criteria that include a requirement that all WBCSD members should have a clear policy in place to respect human rights as well as a human rights due diligence process.

At WBCSD we believe that by proactively addressing human rights issues in their operations and value chains, companies can break down significant barriers to sustainable development and transform the lives of people for the better. Against this backdrop, we will continue to advocate for and support the work of our member companies in scaling up action on the UNGPs and advancing respect for human rights, enhancing companies’ capacity to make significant contributions to the SDGs by putting people first.

James Gomme, Director, People & Society Program, WBCSD

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