Despite the steady growth of the corporate sustainability agenda, global trends as 2021 draws to a close provide a sobering reminder of the challenges still ahead: temperatures heading toward 2.7 degrees rise and no sight of an immediate end to the Covid-19 crisis, with inequalities continuing to intensify as a result, disproportionately harming the most vulnerable. A sad case in point (among many others), as reported by UNICEF this week, global progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years.
Responsible business that respects people and planet across value chains is a key part of the solution to these and other major global challenges, and if we are ever going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. As the authoritative global framework for preventing and addressing adverse business-related human rights impacts, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are a foundational tool for realising better, more responsible business.
When the UNGPs turned 10 in June 2021, as part of its mandate from member states at the UN Human Rights Council to promote the UNGPs worldwide, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights undertook a project to assess the first decade of implementation. The resulting stocktaking highlighted that the UNGPs have led to significant progress. The UNGPs and their three pillars (the State duty to protect human rights; the business responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for better access to remedy) have provided needed clarity on roles and responsibilities through a common framework for managing business-related human rights risks and impacts.
The shared expectations articulated by the UNGPs have spurred public corporate commitments to respect human rights, driven increased transparency on human rights performance through benchmarking and reporting, and enabled corporate actors to mobilize internal change. Within many companies, this has, in turn, driven the development of the internal architectures needed to prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights harms, as shown by a growing number of corporate human rights policies, due diligence procedures, and grievance mechanisms. Beyond increasingly being embedded in law (in spite of the disappointing delay of the EU-wide mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence announced last week), the UNGPs concept of human rights due diligence was mirrored in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and more recently incorporated in the EU taxonomy for sustainable economic activities and the revised Universal Standard of the Global Reporting Initiative. Importantly, human rights due diligence has started to permeate the world of financial institutions, including the IFC, some national development finance institutions and export credit agencies and some of the world’s largest publicly and privately owned institutional investors – albeit unevenly and often narrowly.
Considerable challenges remain when it comes to coherent implementation with respect to ensuring better protection and prevention of adverse human rights impacts
Is the glass half full or half empty, however? The stocktaking also stressed that considerable challenges remain when it comes to coherent implementation with respect to ensuring better protection and prevention of adverse human rights impacts, with particular attention to the most marginalised and vulnerable, and to ensuring access to remedy for harms that occur. In essence, therefore, what we need now for the next decade is to raise the ambition and increase the pace of implementation, to improve coherence and create greater impact.
Building on the stocktaking, at the recent 2021 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, the Working Group launched The UNGPs 10+ Roadmap for the next decade of business and human rights. It sets out eight action areas for the road ahead and for progressively getting closer to fuller UNGPs realisation. Each action area identifies goals for what needs to happen and supporting actions to be taken by states, businesses and other key stakeholders, like investors. All play a role in realising UNGPs implementation.
The roadmap aims to provide strategic orientation for efforts by stakeholders to leverage responsible business more effectively as a solution to tackle global challenges. A key goal in the roadmap is the imperative of making business respect for human rights a core element of just transition and sustainable development strategies. Respecting people and the planet, by preventing and addressing adverse impacts across business activities and value chains, is the most significant contribution most businesses can make toward sustainable development.
The growing number of companies and investors with human rights policy commitments is an encouraging development noted by the Roadmap. It calls for such efforts to be scaled further and followed by more determined action to translate commitments into practice, including for business to move toward more robust meaningful stakeholder engagement practices and to exercise heightened human rights due diligence in conflict-affected and fragile situations. To realise business respect for human rights, the Roadmap stresses that human rights due diligence should be embedded in corporate governance and in evaluation of business models. It also calls for the need to challenge business practices that are inconsistent with respect for human rights, such as lobbying and corporate political engagement that undermine human rights and environmental protection laws and policies.
To seize the ESG momentum in the financial sector as a driver for further progress, the Roadmap underlines that the focus ahead needs to be on driving better business practices that lead to positive outcomes for people and the environment. This needs to be backed by a much wider recognition that the UNGPs provide the core content of the “S” in ESG. The Roadmap also draws attention to the key role of other shapers of business practice beyond regulators and finance: from business lawyers to other corporate advisory providers, including accounting firms, auditors, social audit and assurance providers, management consultancies, and PR firms. It emphasises both their responsibility and role in driving better business processes and practices that respect human rights as an issue in need of greater attention over the next decade.
Going forward, governments, companies, investors, and international organizations all need to heed to the Roadmap’s call on them to raise the ambition and increase the pace of UNGPs implementation. We don’t have a choice, as the road to sustainable development, just green transition and responsible recovery goes through respect for people and the planet.
Anita Ramasastry is a Professor of Law and Director Graduate Program in Sustainable international Development, University of Washington, and member UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.
John E. Grova is advisor to the UN Working Group’s project on the next decade of the UNGPs (UNGPs 10+) and associate researcher at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
The views expressed herein are the authors’ own