The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently published new guidance that outlines, in a practical and accessible way, how company boards can ensure that their companies meet UK and international expectations and obligations in relation to human rights. The guidance is intended to make it easier for company directors to know whether their businesses are doing what they should to meet their human rights responsibilities.

There is an increasing focus on human rights in the business sphere, both in the UK and globally. Businesses in the UK are already subject to various human rights obligations under UK and EU law as well as the international, voluntary standards imposed by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Companies are increasingly conscious of their obligations in this regard and many have recognised the commercial opportunities that a good track record on human rights compliance can bring.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose role is to safeguard people’s rights under equality legislation, examines in its guidance the interaction between business and human rights and sets out five concrete steps that it suggests all company boards should follow to ensure that their business complies with domestic and international human rights obligations. In summary, they propose that companies should:

  1. embed the responsibility to respect human rights into their culture, knowledge and practices;
  2. identify risks to human rights through e.g. their business models and relationships;
  3. systematically address those risks through e.g. their commercial influence and action with business peers;
  4. engage with stakeholders to inform their approach to addressing human rights risks; and
  5. meet reporting requirements in relation to human rights by publicly explaining how they satisfy their commitment to respect human rights.

The guidance also includes various practical questions that directors can consider to guide discussions with senior management about relevant human rights issues.

Although the guidance is not particularly ground-breaking, it provides a useful “road map” to human rights compliance. The guidance also shows how public bodies are increasingly acknowledging the vital role of the private sector in upholding the rule of law and human rights. It is clear that, in publishing this guidance, the Commission is giving companies a real push to commit to, and take responsibility for, human rights compliance in their businesses and that there is more work to be done.

(To find out more about the benefits that effective human rights compliance can bring, see our recap of a panel discussion held by Hogan Lovells’ Business and Human Rights Practice here).