The United Nations Human Rights Council last week formally endorsed the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (“Guiding Principles”). The Guiding Principles are an authoritative point of reference for governments and corporations alike, and provide direction about how best to address the human rights impacts of business activities.

The Guiding Principles were developed by Professor John Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, after six years of research and extensive consultation with governments, corporations, business associations, NGOs, and other stakeholders around the world.

The Guiding Principles further develop the three pillars of the United Nations’ ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, which were set out by Professor Ruggie in 2008 in the first phase of his work, and were unanimously welcomed by the Human Rights Council at the time. The pillars of the framework are:

  • the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including domestic businesses operating abroad, through appropriate policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication;
  • the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, requiring corporations to avoid and address adverse human rights impacts caused or contributed to by their own operations or linked to their operations by business relationships; and
  • the need for greater access to remedies for victims of business-related human rights abuses through judicial, administrative, legislative and other appropriate means.

The Guiding Principles provide practical recommendations to governments and business on the measures they should adopt to put into effect that framework, as well as a set of benchmarks by which stakeholders can assess business’ respect for human rights.

The Guiding Principles recommend that corporations fulfil their responsibility to respect human rights by (among other means):

  • adopting a public policy statement by which a corporation commits to meeting its responsibility to respect human rights. The Guiding Principles suggest that this policy be approved at the most senior level of the corporation, be informed by relevant expertise, stipulate the corporation’s expectations of staff, business partners and other relevant parties, be publicly available and be reflected in operational policies and procedures throughout the enterprise;
  • engaging in human rights due diligence on an ongoing basis. The Guiding Principles suggest that this should involve assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings of these assessments, tracking the effectiveness of responses and formally communicating how impacts are addressed; and
  • providing for or cooperating in the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts identified as having been caused or contributed to by a corporation’s operations, or otherwise directly linked to its operations because of its business relationships.

Given Professor Ruggie’s six year mandate has now come to an end, the Human Rights Council has also resolved to establish a working group on business and human rights. Over a period of three years, this working group is to promote the effective and comprehensive dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles by, among other means, conducting country visits, organising an annual two-day forum on business and human rights (at which governments, corporations and other stakeholders would have the opportunity to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles), and reporting annually to the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

Mallesons has considerable experience in human rights issues and can advise on the legal implications and appropriate implementation of the Guiding Principles for your business.

Mallesons is also hosting a seminar for clients on business and human rights on 18 July 2011, at 5.30pm for 6pm in both Sydney and Melbourne.  Our eminent speakers are Will Irving (Group General Counsel, Telstra), Professor David Kinley (Chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Sydney) and Elaine Prior (Director and Senior Analyst, Citi Investment Research and Analysis), who will discuss the interaction between business and human rights, and why it matters for your business.  Please contact Jonathan Kelp (Melbourne) or Amy Munro (Sydney) for more information on the seminar or to register your attendance.