Business and human rights in the corporate context
ICAS has funded and published research into the corporate implementation of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
Since their unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in 2011, the UNGPs have served as the central reference point for legislative and policy developments in the field of business and human rights.
The UNGPs are increasingly being integrated into national laws, with key concepts such as human rights due diligence (HRDD), now forming the basis of recent national and international legislative initiatives. Despite these developments, little research has been undertaken into how the UNGPs are being implemented and internalised by corporations.
To explore the implementation of the UNGPs in the corporate context, this research study by Dr Marisa McVey (University of St Andrews) draws on case studies conducted at two multinational companies – an oil and gas company and a bank – to:
- 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.
- Examine how experts legitimise their expertise in the BHR ecosystem and the roles they play in the UNGP implementation process.
Some of the key findings from the project were:
- Corporate accountability is key
Companies impact on human rights in many different ways. However, there remain numerous difficulties in holding corporations accountable for human rights abuses and in accessing justice for victims.
- The UNGPs are an influential reference point
Since their launch in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) have served as an influential reference point for legislative and policy developments on corporate responsibility. The three pillars of the UNGPs emphasise the state duty to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect, and access to remedy for victims.
- Human rights due diligence (HRDD) is growing
HRDD is an integral part of the UNGPs second pillar, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. There has been a recent push to introduce mandatory HRDD across different jurisdictions, including France, Germany and at an EU level. This will require companies to identify and act upon actual and potential human rights impacts in its operations.
- The UNGPs provide a useful framing for the corporate incorporation of human rights
This study provided an in-depth look at how companies understand and incorporate the UNGPs and HRDD in different contexts. It found that when trying to make human rights resonate in the corporate context, the UNGPs and their supplementary materials provide a desirable framing of legitimacy, familiar terminology and flexibility, allowing for contextualisation and multiple interpretive possibilities.
- Human rights require the transformation of business practice
Nevertheless, there remain professional and ethical challenges of translating human rights into the corporate context. Despite good intentions, the very process of implementing the UNGPs in companies can create the potential to subordinate human rights to management processes, rather than transforming business practices. A holistic ground of human rights rather than cosmetic application of HRDD is therefore essential.
- The roles and perceived legitimacy of the external experts engaged by companies to carry out various HRDD functions matter
By utilising ‘legitimate’ expertise, companies were perceived to be not only taking their responsibilities under the UNGPs seriously, but also performing these responsibilities to a high standard, embodying both the spirit and the letter of the UNGPs.
To ensure HRDD does not become simply a commodity, there needs to be a recognition of the existence and impact of human rights experts and more legally binding forms of governance
Further consideration will need to be given to whether or how these actors are held responsible for the work they produce and the means through which they might be held to account. This will be challenging, given the diversity of experts and the reliance on them in this space.