Human rights are inherent to all human beings. They are defined and established in more than 80 international legal instruments and define the fundamental protections of human dignity, needs, and freedoms, such as food, housing, privacy, personal security, and democratic participation. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the responsibility to protect human rights has primarily fallen on governments. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, it became increasingly clear that the freedoms enshrined in the framework could also be violated—and promoted—by the private sector.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the first international instrument to assign companies the responsibility to respect human rights.

The UNGPs state that companies must refrain from negatively impacting rights even when governments are failing to create or enforce necessary laws and that victims of corporate abuses must have access to effective remedy.

As part of this responsibility, the UNGPs require companies to actively identify and manage the negative human rights impacts that they may cause directly and those to which they contribute through their business practices and relationships. There are several key actions a company can take as part of this due diligence cycle:

  • Conduct a human rights assessment to determine which potential human rights impacts are most salient to their business
  • Develop a human rights policy to communicate expectations to stakeholders and business partners
  • Ensure there is a robust stakeholder engagement process in place to support ongoing monitoring of potential or actual impacts and drive proactive action or remedy

The actions of businesses can affect people's enjoyment of their human rights both positively and negatively. However, it is important that the priority for any business is to avoid, mitigate, and remedy its contribution to potential negative impacts.