A. United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (‘UN Guiding Principles’), companies should respect human rights, meaning they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others, and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved (UN Guiding Principle 11).

Key Resources
repeating graphic of stick figures exchanging briefcases

The UN Guiding Principles are a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. The UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles in its resolution 17/4 of 16 June 2011.

The UN Guiding Principles provide the authoritative global standard for action to safeguard human rights in a business context. As such, in the course of an investigation, they can be used to assess the compliance of a public-private partnership with human rights standards. They can further be used as a resource to advocate for specific actions that companies and governments need to take. In this section, we highlight the key business responsibilities deriving from the UN Guiding Principles and explain how, despite their non-binding character, they have become the norm in assessing human rights responsibilities in business operations.

i. UN Guiding Principles as a standard of conduct for companies

The Guiding Principles contain three chapters, or pillars: protect, respect, and remedy. Each defines concrete, actionable steps for governments and companies to meet their respective duties and responsibilities to prevent human rights abuses in company operations and provide remedies if such abuses take place.

Amongst others, companies are expected to:

  • adopt an explicit and public policy commitment to meet their responsibility to respect human rights (human rights policy commitments);
  • conduct risk assessments examining the actual and potential human rights impacts, of the proposed tools and services offered (human rights due diligence and impact assessment - HRDD); and
  • set up internal accountability mechanisms for the implementation of human rights policies and have process in place to ensure they enable remediation (grievance mechanisms).

The HRDD process includes four core components: identifying and assessing actual or potential adverse human rights impacts that the company may cause, contribute to, or be directly linked to; taking appropriate action and integrating findings from impact assessments across relevant company processes; tracking the effectiveness of measures in order to assess whether they are working; and communicating with stakeholders about how impacts are being addressed and showing stakeholders that there are adequate policies and processes in place.

ii. Technology companies and UN Guiding Principles

The UN Guiding Principles apply to all companies, and therefore apply to the technology sector. However technology companies haven’t received the same level of scrutiny as other industries have, notably because of the inherent complexity of their products and services, and because of the novelty of the societal effects they provoke. The UN B-Tech Project provides authoritative guidance and resources for implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights (UNGPs) in the technology space. It was launched in 2019 and is led by the UN Human Rights (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. See for example “An Introduction to the UN Guiding Principles in the Age of Technology”.

In addition, UN Special Procedures and other human rights bodies have been increasingly offering guidance regarding the application of the UN Guiding Principles in the technology sector. See among others the report prepared under the aegis of the Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, by Dr. Krisztina Huszti-Orbán and Prof. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, on the “Use of Biometric Data to Identify Terrorists: Best Practice or Risky Business?”. Also, the 2019 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on “Surveillance and human rights” uses the UN Guiding Principle as a starting point when examining corporate responsibility (A/HRC/41/35).

iii. UN Guiding Principles as the global authoritative standard

The UN Guiding Principles are recognised today as the global authoritative standard on the business responsibility to respect human rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (Resolution 17/4). While the UN Guiding Principles are not formally legally binding, they are becoming the norm regulating company operations through new national legislation and investor initiatives incorporating them.

1) Basis for national legislation: The UN Guiding Principles have been the basis for the development of new national legislation on corporate responsibility in various countries. In 2017, for instance, the French Parliament adopted a new law imposing a duty of care on multinationals to prevent serious human rights abuses in all their subsidiaries and supply chains (loi de vigilance). Other countries are preparing similar legislative initiatives. Similarly, on 11 June 2021, the German Parliament passed the “Act on Corporate Due Diligence in Supply Chains” (Supply Chain Due Diligence Act – “Act” or “LkSG”). On 23 February 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence, grounded in part in the UN Guiding Principles.

Other countries and states have implemented due diligence legislation for specific human rights – for example Australia, California, and the UK for modern slavery and the Netherlands for child labour. See an overview of recent developments at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Also, several countries, including Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Kenya, Uganda, the UK and the US, have incorporated the UN Guiding Principles in their respective national action plans. A national action plan on business and human rights is a policy strategy to ensure that states adequately protect against negative human rights outcomes for people by business enterprises.

Quite often the application of national legislation extends to business operations beyond the territory of the legislating states. For instance, the EU Directive aims to ensure respect for human rights and the environment throughout the entire supply chain.

2) Responsible investment: The UN Guiding Principles have also been understood as providing guidance for responsible investment. In 2018, a report by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights specifically called on investors to implement human rights due diligence as part of their own responsibility under the Guiding Principles, to more systematically require effective human rights due diligence by the companies they invest in, and to coordinate with other organizations and platforms to ensure alignment and meaningful engagement with companies. More and more investors are taking up this responsibility, supported by initiatives like the Investor Alliance for Human Rights and the Principles for Responsible Investment.

Related learning resources