Businesses in conflict-affected and high-risk contexts (“high-risk contexts” in this brief) face heightened risks of involvement in serious human rights violations. This can lead to severe harm—including loss of life, liberty, and livelihoods—to community members, employees, suppliers, contractors, and customers, as well as reputational damage, operational interruptions, legal liability, and financial penalties for the business.
To prevent and mitigate human rights risks in high-risk contexts, companies should conduct “heightened” human rights due diligence. Heightened human rights due diligence goes beyond what is required by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) by accounting for context and the business’s impact on that context. It requires ongoing stakeholder engagement, forward-looking trend analysis, proactive mitigation measures, and localized decision-making.
One of the central concepts we're advancing here is that business does not operate in a vacuum—they are parachuting in to a preexisting context with preexisting power dynamics and tensions, and by virtue of entering that context, they are changing it. Businesses may think that they are "neutral" because they don't take a position on the political situation in that country, but because they bring financial resources and interacting with people, economic systems, and the environment, they are having an impact (either positive or negative) on that context.
Defining High-Risk Contexts
High-risk contexts include situations of armed conflict and mass violence as well as areas with weak governance or rule of law; extensive corruption or criminality; significant social, political, or economic instability; historical conflicts linked to ethnic, religious, or other identities; closure of civic space; and a record of previous violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.1
No one factor drives the conflict and instability seen in these contexts. Rather, a complex interplay of social, political, environmental, and economic factors fosters an environment where violence, oppression, poverty, human rights abuses, and state failure are more likely to occur. These factors include social divisions; governance grievances like political exclusion, weak state accountability, corruption, and inadequate service provision; economic grievances like limited economic opportunity and economic inequality between groups; and environmental factors, including climatic shocks and stresses as well as natural resource scarcity and degradation.2