8 April, 2021
By Ataa Dabour – Research Assistant
The title of this article may, at first glance, seem ironic or unrealistic. Indeed, imagining links between business, human rights and peace may be inconceivable for the obvious reason that the protection of human dignity and the maintenance and preservation of peace are generally the responsibility of states.
However, the debate on the need for corporate responsibility to incorporate respecting human rights is not new. The debate gained intensity in the 1990s because of two high-profile sector case studies: the location of oil, mining, and gas companies in high-risk regions, and the offshore production in the garment and footwear sector, which highlighted poor working conditions in global supply chains.
However, it was not until 2004 that the Sub-Commission of the UN Commission on Human Rights produced a set of Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises concerning Human Rights. The standards set out in this document aim to impose binding obligations on companies related to international human rights law, namely to promote, secure the realization of, implement, and enforce human rights.
While some human rights groups spoke out in favor of the draft standards, businesses strongly opposed it. Fortunately, many developments led by the United Nations marked a clearer recognition of the responsibility of businesses in respecting human rights and preserving or enhancing peace.
Following strong corporate opposition to the draft norms, the Commission on Human Rights asked then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appoint a special representative to break the deadlock and clarify the roles and responsibilities of states, corporations, and civil society organizations concerning business and human rights.
In 2005, Kofi Annan appointed John Ruggie, a Berthold Beitz Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, and an Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. John Ruggie thusly became the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for business and human rights.
To fulfill his mandate, the Special Representative conducted extensive research and consultations with governments, businesses, and civil society on five continents. In 2008, after three years of intense work, John Ruggie presented his report Protect, Respect, and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights to the Human Rights Council.
He concluded that one of the main reasons for the lack of progress in business and human rights is the absence of a framework around which the expectations of stakeholders could converge, which clarifies the responsibilities of the actors involved, and provides a basis for reflection and action. The Special Representative, therefore, also presented the necessary framework, which is based on three pillars.
- The state’s duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication;
- The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts that occur;
- Greater access by victims to an effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.
Unanimously welcomed, the UN framework marks the first time that a UN intergovernmental body has taken a political stance on business and human rights. The Council extended the mandate of the Special Representative until 2011, with the task of operationalizing and promoting the framework. In June 2011, the Special Representative submitted a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, based on the three mentioned above pillars.
The Guiding Principles became the global standards of practices expected of all states and corporates concerning business and human rights. While they do not by themselves constitute a legally binding document, the Guiding Principles elaborate on the implications of existing standards and practices for states and businesses and include points covered variously in international and domestic law.
Well received by key stakeholders, the Guiding Principles have served to put into practice non-traditional concepts such as the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Many governments have since elaborated their policy assessments, several global companies realigned their due diligence processes, and major international organizations have adapted their business and human rights policies.
From Respecting Human Rights to Promoting Peace
When we talk about the role of corporates in promoting or enhancing peace, we are primarily talking about the corporate social responsibility to respect human rights. This responsibility refers to acting with due diligence to avoid human rights abuses and to remedy any harm that occurs.
Unlike states, which have an obligation or duty to respect human rights, when referring to companies the notion of responsibility rather than duty is used to show that respect for human rights is not an obligation that international human rights law generally imposes directly on companies.
Rather, it is an expected global standard of conduct, recognized in almost all voluntary and non-binding corporate accountability instruments, and now affirmed by the Human Rights Council itself. The internationally recognized rights that companies must respect, and which makes companies accountable are:
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- The International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights
- The International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- The Core conventions of the International Labor Organization
The corporate responsibility to respect human rights applies to all business activities, and their relationships with third parties linked to those activities such as business partners, entities in its value chain, and other non-state actors and state agents. Also, companies should consider the country and local contexts in which they are located, the challenges they may pose, and how they may influence the human rights impacts of the company’s activities and relationships.
The idea of respecting human rights through corporate responsibility also led to the idea that business could and should actively promote peace, as an extension of its social responsibility, explains Associate Professor Debbie Haski-Leventhal of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.
Appointed in 2006 by the UN General-Secretary, the UN Global Compact launched the world’s largest corporate initiative promoting peace and sustainability, the Business for Peace. The basic idea of Business for Peace is simple: companies can help create the conditions for peace, reduce violence in the world, and contribute to sustainable prosperity through the adoption of ethical business behavior aimed at increasing peace.
The initiative is a call to companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption, and take actions that advance societal goals as promoted by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals. The Business for Peace Initiative is based on ten principles derived from:
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- The International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
- The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
- The United Nations Convention Against Corruption
More than 12,000 companies in over 160 countries, representing nearly every sector and size, are involved in the Business for Peace initiative – a great success for peace enhancing, just as the UN standards developed since 2005 are fundamental advances in the respect of human rights. Although the Business for Peace initiative and the Business and Human Rights standards are not based on the same laws or norms, both emphasize the importance for businesses to ensuring the respect of human rights, but not necessarily to promoting peace.
Yet, as we may know, peace and respect for human rights are two different things. While peace does not mean respect of human rights, respect of human rights does not lead in absolute terms to a peaceful and sustainable society. In this respect, the UN standards developed to ensure respect of human rights and the Business for Peace initiative do not, in themselves, have the same objectives, but they do overlap on several points.
So, one may ask whether bringing together all the work initiated by the United Nations into a single set of standards and have the different actors working in the business, human rights, and peace sectors work together would not be more relevant for the respect of human rights, for the promotion of peace, and even to reach all sectors of the business community? We know today how much collective work and bridge-building between different stakeholders is the key to finding solutions to global challenges.
Image: Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, the meeting room of the United Nations Human Rights Council (Source: Ludovic Courtès via CC BY-SA 3.0)