This June will mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Commission in 2011, the UNGPs have become the universal standard guiding business responsibility to respect human rights.

As we work with businesses around the globe to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights, the UNGPs have been critical to advancing BSR’s mission of creating a more just, sustainable world.

The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG), as part of its mandate to promote the UNGPs, has called for submissions to inform the UNGPs' next decade project, seeking input to “develop an ambitious vision and roadmap for implementing the UNGPs more widely and more broadly between now and 2030.”

For BSR’s submission, our human rights team has drawn on over 25 years of experience in supporting companies on human rights issues, as well as consultations with more than 40 companies in late 2020.  Through our reflection on the past 10 years of the UNGPs, we’ve identified key successes, gaps, challenges, and opportunities.

The broad consensus is that the UNGPs have been successful in giving companies across sectors—along with their partners in government and civil society—a shared roadmap for respecting human rights and a common language for articulating this goal. The UNGPs have also been successful in:

  • Spurring public corporate commitments to respect human rights
  • Increasing transparency on human rights performance through benchmarking and reporting
  • Driving the development of the internal architecture (e.g., policies, procedures, staffing) needed to prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights harms
  • Expanding the scope of risk beyond risks to the business to include a broader set of risks to rightsholders    

As we look ahead to the next decade of the UNGPs, we see the need to focus on the areas that will enable us to achieve the most meaningful progress toward the realization of human rights. We recommend starting with these six focus areas.

Due Diligence

One gap that we identified in our analysis of corporate human rights programs is that human rights assessments are often conducted as one-off events, rather than as part of an ongoing process of discovery and response built into cross-functional risk management processes.

For the next 10 years of the UNGPs, we recommend strengthening the effectiveness of human rights due diligence by ensuring that it is forward-looking and ongoing; engages rightsholders in identifying, preventing, and mitigating human rights impacts; and includes consideration of systemic and contextual risk factors.

Access to Remedy

Effective remedy should be informed by the perspectives of rightsholders who have been harmed, ensuring that the harm and its root causes are appropriately identified and addressed and that adverse impacts are appropriately remediated. However, rightsholder engagement in the development of effective grievance mechanisms and the provision of remedy is limited, and the respective roles of states and companies in the remedy ecosystem remains unclear.

The UNWG and the broader business and human rights community can strengthen access to remedy by providing guidance on the effectiveness criteria, the roles and responsibilities of different actors in the remedy ecosystem, and implementation of remedy.

Supply Chains

Supply chains continue to pose numerous well-recognized challenges to meeting the goals of the UNGPs. First, many companies still lack complete visibility of their human rights impacts beyond the first tier of the supply chain. In addition, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which make up much of the upstream value chain, are often left out of the equation entirely—lacking adequate support, incentives, and resources to guide implementation of the UNGPs.

We see significant opportunity in extending corporate human rights work to reach the people in the global supply chain. There is clearly a need for innovative and enhanced approaches to addressing upstream human rights impacts in corporate supply chains. This includes increased collaboration across the value chain, more effective use of leverage, and increased application of the UNGPs among SMEs.

Products and Services

In downstream value chains, similar challenges persist, with limited assessment of human rights impacts associated with products and services beyond the point of sale and limited awareness of effective approaches to build leverage and manage risk.

As such, we see a need for increased attention to the actual and potential human rights impacts of products and services, and developing effective approaches to preventing, mitigating, and remedying these. Product impacts are very industry specific. The OHCHR’s B-Tech Project is a useful example of a sector-specific effort to interpret the UNGPs.

Outcomes and Impacts

There are several challenges related to defining relevant metrics and collecting data about human rights outcomes, particularly data related to prevention of adverse impacts, and these have undermined the corporate human rights field’s ability to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of specific approaches.

Looking to the next decade, we believe it is necessary for companies to establish a shared vision for outcomes and impacts, as well as clarify meaningful process and outcome indicators to measure performance and improve accountability. The financial sector can play a key role in the development of performance measurement criteria, thereby driving increased integration of human rights performance into investment decision-making.

The Role of the State

Despite the trend toward increased legislation, limited national action to protect human rights in many countries around the world is perhaps the most prominent obstacle to the implementation of the UNGPs, particularly in contexts afflicted by conflict, corruption, and weak, predatory, or authoritarian governments. Insufficient action taken by states to address core development challenges—including poverty, inequality, and weak rule of law—further heightens the risk that business activity will cause or contribute to adverse human rights impacts or facilitate harm through business relationships. While business plays a critical role in fostering the enabling environment for human rights through inclusive economic growth, responsible stewardship of natural resources, and attention to the concerns of vulnerable groups, many companies remain reluctant to take proactive action in the absence of the state.

To address this, companies can collaborate with and advocate for national governments to harmonize legal requirements with each other, in alignment with the UNGPs and with other evolving environmental reporting and due diligence requirements. Collaborative approaches that bring business together with civil society and government to solve complex systemic challenges, address structural barriers, and prevent the cumulative impact of business activity on human rights beyond the impacts of a single company are also key.

Conclusion

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was a landmark document for the corporate human rights field. Over the past decade, it has been a foundational part of the work that BSR does in helping to create a more just, sustainable world.

We look forward to another decade of companies and partners working together to fulfill the promise of the UNGPs and ensuring that human rights are respected and protected—and we believe with additional focus on the areas above, we will be able to do so even more effectively.

BSR wishes to thank the more than 40 companies who participated in the UNGP Next Decade consultations, including members of BSR’s Human Rights Working Group as well as other companies who shared their experience and insight. To learn more about BSR’s human rights work, please feel free to reach out to our team.