The critical role of business during the time of COVID-19 is clear for everyone to see. Whether it is providing access to accurate information, continuing to pay hourly waged staff, or ensuring continuity of emergency supplies, companies are central to our collective response.

It also seems clear that this role won’t just continue, but it will intensify and become more difficult over time. Companies are going to run low on income, operate with reduced human capacity, and face increasing pressure from governments to assist with emergency COVID-19 efforts.

The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached such a level of imminent threat to public health that restrictions on certain human rights, such as limiting freedom of movement, appear to be justified. A lot has been written about human rights and the role of governments during this time of emergency, such as this analysis from Human Rights Watch on the application of human rights law and this appeal from leading UN human rights experts for states not to abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights.

But this begs a critically important question: what are the key human rights principles for companies to uphold during this public emergency?

While noting that public health may be invoked as grounds for limiting certain human rights, such measures should only be specifically aimed at preventing disease or providing care.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) expect companies to identify and assess actual or potential adverse human rights impacts and to take appropriate action to address them. Under normal circumstances, companies have weeks, months, or even years to complete this due diligence; not so in the age of COVID-19, when decisions are being made by the hour.

Using the UNGPs and the various human rights principles, standards, and methodologies upon which the UNGPs were built, BSR had previously developed a rapid human rights due diligence tool to help with this rapid decision-making challenge. We’re making this tool publicly available today.

The range of human rights issues at stake today is huge:

  • Under what circumstances might a company share personal data with others—such as governments, public health agencies, researchers, or civil society organizations—to support public health efforts?
  • In what circumstances—such as the provision of essential products and services—should employees be required to continue working for the public good even though it may adversely impact their own health and safety?
  • How should companies act if governments abuse their emergency powers by limiting human rights by more or for longer than is necessary?

The BSR tool guides companies through human rights due diligence in situations when very little time is available. The tool also makes specific reference to the Siracusa Principles, adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984, which describe limitations on the restriction on human rights that governments may apply for reasons of public health or national emergency.

While noting that public health may be invoked as grounds for limiting certain human rights, such measures should only be specifically aimed at preventing disease or providing care. The Siracusa Principles set out very important guardrails, such as being undertaken in accordance with law, being directed towards a legitimate aim, being proportionate to that aim, being strictly necessary, using no more restrictive means than are required for the achievement of the purpose of the limitation, and being of limited duration.

BSR member companies are welcome to get in touch with Jenny Vaughan for further guidance on this dynamic situation and assistance using this tool and tailoring it to your unique needs.

Download the Tool