Businesses' Human Rights Responsibilities

By Lewis, Corinne | Forced Migration Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Businesses' Human Rights Responsibilities


Lewis, Corinne, Forced Migration Review


There is no international human rights law standard that expressly prohibits businesses' arbitrary displacement of persons. Businesses do, however, have the responsibility to avoid infringements of human rights that could lead to displacement and also to take actions to remedy their human rights violations that might lead to displacement.

It is accepted wisdom that companies can significantly contribute to alleviating poverty, creating new jobs, improving roads and sanitation, facilitating greater access to water and enhancing health services in communities. However, greater attention is now being given to the negative impacts of companies' operations on communities, including those that can lead to displacement. Pollution from factories and mining projects, for example, has deprived people of their livelihoods, water sources and access to religious and cultural sites. Even where a company is not causing damage to the environment, its mere presence can alter the social composition of the local community or create tensions among different groups and lead to displacement of individuals, families or whole communities.

More and more, throughout all their operations and regardless of the size and nature of the business, companies are being required to respect human rights. The principle of corporate respect for human rights was articulated in a document submitted in 2008 to the UN Human Rights Council by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises, Professor John Ruggie. His 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework for Business and Human Rights1 (the Framework) was welcomed by the Human Rights Council.

The Framework rests on three pillars. The first pillar concerns the duty of states to protect against human rights abuses committed by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication. The second pillar is the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the third is the need for greater access by victims of human rights violations to an effective remedy.

In 2011, businesses were provided with operational guidance on the implementation of their corporate responsibility to protect human rights in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and Remedy7 Framework2 (the Guiding Principles on B&HR), which were fully endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. The Guiding Principles on B&HR, like the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, are not legally binding but are consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law standards.

The Framework and the Guiding Principles on B&HR are playing a key part in precipitating a transformation in the view of businesses' relationship to human rights. They provide a new foundation for companies to be accountable for respecting human rights and, consequently, for companies to take steps to ensure that their actions do not lead to human rights violations that could result in displacement.

Although respect for human rights remains a voluntary obligation for companies, it is receiving wide support. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development included the principle in its 2011 updated Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.3 The International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group), which provides loans to businesses in developing countries to advance economic development and reduce poverty, acknowledges the responsibility of the private sector to respect human rights in the 2012 edition of its Policy on Environmental and Social Sustainability.4 In October 2011 the European Commission issued a new corporate social responsibility policy that expresses the expectation that European companies will meet the responsibility to respect human rights.5 Around the same time the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced that the first thematic study of its new Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights would address the issue of business and human rights.

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