What’s transformative about the Guiding Principles? What’s critical to know about them? This page provides a brief overview about what makes the Guiding Principles a gamechanger.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the authoritative global standard on business and human rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. The 31 principles set expectations of states and companies about how to prevent and address negative impacts on human rights by business. The Guiding Principles apply to all states and all businesses worldwide and today are being implemented by companies, governments and their stakeholders on every continent.
Jump to questions:
What are human rights?
How are human rights relevant for companies?
Aren’t states primarily responsible for human rights?
So what are businesses supposed to do to prevent negative impacts on human rights?
But the work is big and complex and there will probably always be human rights harms going on. How can a company be expected to change that?
The Guiding Principles talk about “respect” for human rights and they that companies can’t “offset” human rights harms with philanthropy. Why can’t positive impacts also “count” when it comes to respecting human rights?
The Guiding Principles were developed between 2005 and 2011 under the mandate of then-Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for business and human rights John Ruggie, who today is the Chair of Shift's Board of Trustees. The Guiding Principles were built on extensive research and nearly 50 international consultations around the globe. | More information on Professor Ruggie's mandate at the United Nations | Learn about the Shift team's role during the mandate
The idea of human rights is as simple as it is powerful: that people have a right to be treated with dignity. Being treated with dignity is the foundation for leading a decent human life. Human rights are therefore inherent to all people as human beings, and not something that governments are free to grant or take away in the way they might do with other legal rights.
Human rights include rights to life and physical security, rights to freedom of thought, expression and religion, freedom of association and of movement, rights to education and work, to family life and privacy, to food and water, freedoms from torture, slavery or forced labor, rights to fair and decent work conditions and non-discrimination.
These and other internationally recognized human rights are set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations following the atrocities of the Second World War. Since then, all states have expressed support for this Declaration. These human rights are elaborated in more detail in two international conventions agreed in the United Nations (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and in the Declaration on Fundamental Rights and Principles at Work of the International Labour Organization.
To see a complete listing of internationally recognized human rights and how businesses could potentially impact them, see this table in our resource library.
Companies can have many positive impacts on human rights, including through the provision of decent jobs and a contribution to growth and development of societies. Some industries advance human rights in specific ways, such as supporting freedom of expression through information and communication technologies, supporting health by making new medicines available and accessible, or advancing development by bringing new roads and water supplies to poor communities.
Yet companies can also be involved with negative impacts on human rights.
The Guiding Principles make clear that all companies everywhere have a responsibility to respect human rights, which means to avoid having negative impacts on them and to address such impacts where they do occur. This responsibility applies to their own operations and to all their business relationships, including those throughout their value chain.
It is states that negotiate and sign up to treaties and conventions and which then have the obligation to translate them into domestic laws and enforcement processes. Their duties include respecting human rights in what they do as states, protecting human rights against abuse by others, and fulfilling human rights over time where that requires considerable resources, for example in providing access to education or clean water.
The corporate responsibility to respect human rights does not increase or decrease depending on whether states meet their own duty to protect human rights. It is, of course, much more challenging for companies to meet this responsibility when states do not have adequate standards and regulations in place, fail to enforce them effectively or even have laws that directly conflict with international human right standards. Yet while we can all recognize that challenge, the Guiding Principles nonetheless expect business to be prepared for it.
That means that all businesses should put in place appropriate policies and processes in a proactive effort to respect human rights. And those businesses that operate or have parts of their value chain in countries where governments fail to fulfill their own duties to protect human rights will need to make additional efforts to respect human rights in light of the risky environment. | See more about respecting human rights in high risk circumstances
Businesses need to have the right policies and processes in place in order to try to prevent these impacts and to respond appropriately should they occur. The Guiding Principles provide a blueprint for them to do so.
That blueprint describes a three part approach that can be summarized as:
Achieving respect for human rights is challenging. It is not just about companies’ own operations and employees and the activities they directly control. Nor is it just about first tier or strategic suppliers. It includes impacts that may be much more remote in their value chain and caused by third parties over which they have limited influence. But the expectation on businesses today is clear: if their products or services are linked to human rights abuses, they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to try to change that situation.
The Guiding Principles fundamentally changed our understanding of what we can all reasonably expect of business. They did this by recognizing that the responsibility to respect human rights is tied to impacts on people and not to how much influence a business has in a given context or relationship. They call on businesses to work to prevent and address human rights harms in connection with their own operations and value chain. If the company did not cause or contribute to the impact, and if the impact is not linked to the company’s operations, products or services through a business relationship, then the company does not have a responsibility to address it (though of course it may choose to do so for many other reasons). So the Guiding Principles put some boundaries on what companies are responsible for.
At the same time, within the scope of impacts occurring in a company’s operations and value chain, the Guiding Principles expect companies to set into motion an ongoing process of due diligence. Due diligence means making serious efforts to prevent harms, including where the company does not control a situation and may feel it lacks the ability to change things.
Due diligence also means getting better with time – including making sure the company learns from failures and blind spots, and pushing the envelope about what’s possible through innovative approaches and collaborations to increase the company’s leverage (influence) to try to prevent harms. Collaboration can be particularly critical where a business is confronted with systemic human rights abuses that it cannot fix alone. But by connecting with others and using their collective leverage, real change can happen.
For example, ten years ago, companies said they couldn’t do anything about the fact that minerals they were using from parts of central Africa were financing conflict in that region – and now, thanks to collaborative efforts, companies have shown they can actually trace the source of their materials, and they’re engaging with others to source responsibly from the region. Before the Rana Plaza disaster, many apparel companies were carrying out numerous audits on working conditions in garment manufacturing factories in Bangladesh, but systemic weaknesses in worker protections meant many workers were still suffering under unsafe working conditions. Now, the Bangladesh Accord is helping drive real change in how apparel gets manufactured in Bangladesh. These collaborative initiatives don’t lead to major changes overnight – but they can lead to real impact over time.
Respecting human rights is positive and it does "count" – in a major way.
But it is about how a company makes its profits, not how it spends those profits. Donating computers to a school, building a clinic or enabling staff to volunteer in the local community can be beneficial to society. But if the same company overlooks harassment in its workplace, child labor in its supply chains, or harm to health from pollution from its operations, no beneficial acts can cancel or reduce that reality.
By contrast, when a company takes a hard look at its own (potentially significant) "footprint" on people, and takes real steps to ensure its activities are respectful of those people, it helps prevent negative impacts and can also have a truly positive, uplifting effect on people's lives.
When a company works to drive diversity and inclusion through its workplaces, it not only reduces risks of discrimination but can open opportunities for women, minorities and others and help change attitudes in society. When a company collaborates with others to push forced labor or poverty wages out of its supply chain, it both reduces risks of abuses and helps workers around the world begin to build lives with dignity and opportunity for themselves and their families. When a company builds a new dam or digs a mine following meaningful dialogue with communities to gain their consent, rather than trusting a government's hasty claim that the land was "uninhabited," it protects people from dispossession and empowers them to have a say in decisions that affect them.
Respect is positive, it is transformative, it is essential. It is the hallmark of a lasting and future-ready, competitive company.
We work with a wide range of organizations to help them successfully navigate this process.