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Human Rights and Corporate Law: Trends and Observations From a Cross-National Study Conducted by the Special Representative

This report summarizes the findings based on extensive research and consultation with corporate law experts in multiple jurisdictions regarding the links between corporate and securities law and human rights.

May 2011 | John G. Ruggie; UN Human Rights Council | Pages: 48

This resource is an addendum to the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie. It was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. An update to this report was written by Shift in 2013.

The summary is excerpted from the resource.


Corporate and securities law directly shapes what companies do and how they do it. Its implications for human rights, however, remain poorly understood. Corporate law and human rights are often viewed as distinct legal and policy spheres, populated by different communities of practice.

In early 2009, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises established the Corporate Law Project (CL Project). The Project involved more than 20 leading corporate law firms from around the world (appendix I) assisting pro bono to identify whether and how corporate and securities law in 39 jurisdictions (appendix II) encourages or impedes companies’ respect for human rights. The firms explored issues such as incorporation and listing; directors’ duties; reporting; and stakeholder engagement (see appendix III for the Project’s research template). The Special Representative also convened several expert consultations to discuss key findings and next steps. To the Special Representative’s knowledge, the Project is the first in-depth, multi-jurisdictional exploration of the links between corporate and securities law and human rights.

The jurisdiction-specific surveys indicated that corporate and securities law around the world does intersect with human rights. Simply put, where the impact on human rights may harm a company’s short- or long-term interests if it is not adequately identified, managed and reported, companies and their directors and officers may risk non-compliance with a variety of rules promoting corporate governance, risk management and market safeguards. Even where the company itself is not at risk, several States recognize through their corporate and securities laws that responsible corporate practice should avoid negative social or environmental consequences, including for human rights.

Despite these links, the CL Project also highlighted two other patterns. One is a lack of clarity in corporate and securities law regarding not only what companies or their directors and officers are required to do regarding human rights, but, in some cases, even what they are permitted to do. The other is the limited coordination between corporate regulators, on the one hand, and Government agencies responsible for implementing human rights obligations, on the other. As a result, in most of the jurisdictions studied, companies and their directors and officers lack effective guidance on how best to ensure or oversee corporate respect for human rights.

Key trends from each part of the CL Project include:

  • Incorporation and listing: None of the surveys identified laws expressly requiring companies, at incorporation, to recognize a duty to society. Some surveys contended, however, that this duty could be implied from obligations to incorporate for a proper or lawful purpose, especially in States with strong legal protection for human rights. Listing is also generally not linked to any recognition of a duty to society, although some listing rules do encourage companies to consider and address human rights-related impact, mainly using environmental, social and governance language. 

  • Directors’ duties: The surveys suggested that directors are rarely expressly required to consider non-shareholders’ interests, such as those of employees, customers or communities affected by the company’s activities. Nevertheless, most surveys indicated that, if not considering the company’s impact on human rights could lead to the company breaching the law or encountering reputational risk, thus potentially damaging the company’s long-term interests, directors should consider impact as part of fulfilling their duties to act with due care and diligence. Most surveys also indicated that directors are permitted to consider impact provided that this is in line with the company’s best interests. 

  • Reporting: In most surveyed jurisdictions, companies must disclose all information that is “material” or “significant” to their operations and financial condition. Where the human rights impact reaches that threshold, most surveys suggested that the company would be required to disclose it. Nevertheless, the surveys also confirmed that there is limited regulatory guidance for companies on when the human rights impact might reach that threshold.

    The surveys highlighted the fact that some States are starting to require corporate social responsibility reports for particular types of companies, typically listed companies and State-owned enterprises. Such provisions tend to focus on the reporting of policies rather than on impact, and these corporate social responsibility reports may not be subject to the same accessibility and verification requirements as financial reports.

  • Stakeholder engagement: In the surveyed jurisdictions, there are generally few substantive impediments to efforts by shareholders to include human rights concerns in proposals for annual general meetings. There are, however, procedural barriers. Regarding the duties of pension fund trustees, most surveys indicated that a trustee would need to consider the impact on human rights of an investment if not doing so could expose the fund to legal or reputational risk. There has been recent governmental encouragement for pension fund trustees to consider the impact on human rights of their investments. 

  • Other corporate governance issues: While the surveyed jurisdictions vary in the way in which corporate governance codes and guidelines address corporate social responsibility issues, there is also a commonality in that these codes and guidelines are starting to deal with these issues; they are rarely entirely “voluntary” in practice, and increasingly rely on international corporate social responsibility initiatives to help frame any relevant guidance. Nevertheless, direct references to human rights remain rare.

The Special Representative hopes that the CL Project will stimulate discussion among the key actors involved, including human rights lawyers and advocates, corporate and securities law experts, company representatives and government regulators, and lead to additional research beyond the 39 jurisdictions included in the Project.

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