Human rights are inherent to all human beings. They are defined and established in more than 80 international legal instruments1 and include 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 human rights 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 (Guiding Principles), the first international instrument to assign companies the responsibility to respect human rights. The Guiding Principles state that governments must put in place good policies, laws, and enforcement measures to prevent companies from violating rights; companies must refrain from negatively impacting rights even when governments are failing to create or enforce necessary laws; and victims of corporate abuses must have access to effective remedy. As part of this responsibility, the Guiding Principles require companies to undertake due diligence to identify and manage their negative human rights impacts.

This issue brief identifies the 10 most relevant, urgent, and probable human rights impacts for businesses operating in the power and utilities sector. The information here is gathered from BSR’s direct engagement with power and utilities companies, as well as our 25 years of experience helping companies in all sectors manage their human rights risks.

The power and utilities sector comprises a wide range of businesses and activities, from electricity and heat, gas, waste, and water utilities to different actors in the energy markets, like power producers and energy developers. While each of these sub-sectors will have its own human rights profile and challenges, this brief highlights universal risks to the sector as a whole.