Business & Human Rights

Shopping for Human Rights!

“If we know more about the products we buy, we can make informed decisions about where we buy them from.”


In a world where the 50 of the 100 biggest economies are multinational companies and new communications technology is erasing national borders, governments are no longer the sole agents of global behavior.

Corporations have reached a level of influence that makes them both a problem and a potential solution in human rights struggles and requires a dual effort: holding them accountable for their actions (and the actions of their suppliers) while also providing a path so that their actions can support a positive human rights agenda.

Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The process of globalization and other global developments over the past decades have seen non-state actors such as transnational corporations and other business play an increasingly important role both internationally, but also at the national and local levels. The growing reach and impact of business enterprises have given rise to a debate about the roles and responsibilities of such actors with regard to human rights.

Factory Workers | Business & Human RightsInternational human rights standards have traditionally been the responsibility of governments, aimed at regulating relations between the State and individuals and groups. But with the increased role of corporate actors, nationally and internationally, the issue of business’ impact on the enjoyment of human rights has been placed on the agenda of the United Nations. Over the past decade, the United Nations human rights machinery has been considering the scope of business’ human rights responsibilities and exploring ways for corporate actors to be accountable for the impact of their activities on human rights. As a result of this process, there is now greater clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of governments and business with regard to protection and respect for human rights. Most prominently, the emerging understanding and consensus have come as a result of the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework on human rights and business, which was elaborated by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, building on major research and extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders, including States, civil society and the business community.

On 16 June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for implementing the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, providing – for the first time – a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. In a nutshell, the framework rests on three pillars, as laid out in the introduction to the Guiding Principles:

“The first is the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication. The second is the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved. The third is the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.”

How to Incorporate Human Rights Obligations in Bilateral Investment Treaties?

Bilateral investment treaties (BITs) are, at least in their present form, asymmetrical. Foreign investors are being accorded substantive rights under these treaties without being subject to any specific obligations. In this context, one question that has been increasingly debated in academia and in civil society is whether there is a need for a greater degree of balance in BITs between the legitimate interests of investors and host countries. This question is part of a boarder debate on how human rights violations committed by corporations doing business abroad can best be addressed. Some international instruments, such as international human rights treaties, are specifically directed at the activities of corporations. However, the obligations contained in these instruments are binding on the contracting states and not on corporations themselves. International law (as it now stands) does not impose any direct legal obligations on corporations. However, nothing in international law prevents countries from signing treaties (such as BITs) that would impose human rights obligations upon corporations.