Business and human rights
A research project in support of her successful PhD by Dr Marisa McVey, now Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of St Andrews, School of Management and Research Fellow at Aston Law School, explores the corporate implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
ICAS Research supported and contributed to Marisa’s project, alongside the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS), leading to Marisa kindly preparing a condensed and practical-oriented version of her PhD thesis for ICAS.
Human rights are basic fundamental and inalienable freedoms, upheld through instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948). Since the 1990s, the field of business and human rights has emerged as ‘an increasingly prominent feature on the international agenda’ (Ruggie, 2013), as a response to growing awareness and concern for the impacts of corporations on human rights - for example, as a result of poor working conditions, environmental pollution or violations of the rights of indigenous people through forced displacement.
Since their unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in 2011, the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) have served as the central reference point for legislative and policy developments in the field of business and human rights. While ostensibly a soft law initiative, the UNGPs are increasingly being assimilated into national laws, with key concepts such as human rights due diligence (HRDD) now forming the basis of recent legislative initiatives. Despite these developments, little research has been undertaken into how the UNGPs are being implemented and internalised by corporations.
This study pursued the following objectives:
- Examine how human rights are brought into and employed in the corporate space through the implementation of the UNGPs, particularly Pillar II – the corporate responsibility to respect human rights;
- Identify who is involved in this process, and how these actors understand and translate the UNGPs, human rights and HRDD in different contexts; and
- Examine how experts legitimise their expertise in the business and human rights ecosystem, and the roles they play in the UNGP implementation process.
Summary of research approach
To address these questions, qualitative case study research was undertaken at two multinational companies – an oil and gas company and a bank. Both case studies are real corporate examples, but are referred to as OilGas and CashMoney to preserve confidentiality.
Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with individuals that held human rights related roles at each company, as well as with external experts who advised or engaged with the companies on human rights issues. In total, 32 interviews were conducted – including 5 with internal participants from OilGas, 7 with internal participants from CashMoney and 20 external experts.
Evidence from this qualitative research suggests a number of interesting features of how human rights are brought into the corporate context and the legitimacy and role of external experts.
Findings from this study highlight issues including:
- The utility of the UNGPs in terms of framing human rights issues
The UNGPs are useful in translating human rights for corporations, and their perceived flexible framing is seen as allowing a significant degree of autonomy over how businesses fulfil their responsibilities under them.
- The translation of human rights into the corporate context and the professional and ethical challenge this presents
Despite good intentions when translating human rights for businesses, the very process of implementing the UNGPs into the corporate context has the potential to subordinate human rights to management processes rather than transforming business practice.
- The roles and perceived legitimacy of external experts that are engaged by companies
The use of recognised external experts confers legitimacy to a company’s human rights practices – taking their responsibilities seriously and performing them to a high standard embodying both the spirit and the letter of the UNGPs. Some questions however also arise in relation to the growing business of human rights expertise as a commercial endeavour by external parties.
Overall, this study provides a much-needed contribution to the expansion of interdisciplinary inquiry into business and human rights issues, evaluating the use of the UNGPs the realities and nuances of implementing human rights into the corporate context.