From Principles to Practice: three new guides support three sectors in respecting human rights

26 June 2013

By Margaret Wachenfeld, Managing Director, Themis Research; Senior Research Fellow, IHRB

With the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights just passing their second birthday, it is a fitting time for the emergence of more detailed guidance to encourage their implementation.

As a contribution to this objective, last week the European Commission launched much anticipated guides to assist three industry sectors in implementing the corporate responsibility to respect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles. The new guides - for employment and recruitment agencies, oil and gas and ICT companies respectively – are intended to help “translate” respect for human rights into company systems and cultures in each of the sectors. They summarise what the Guiding Principles expect of companies and offer a range of ideas and industry specific examples for how to put them into practice.

The Guides, developed over the past eighteen months by IHRB and Shift on behalf of the European Commission, walk readers through the Guiding Principles, highlighting why each provision is important, the steps involved in implementation and key points for implementation. Importantly, each Guide gives a range of industry-focused approaches, reinforcing the point that no one size fits all when it comes to implementation.

The examples included in the Guides demonstrate that businesses are already taking important steps to implement the Guiding Principles. Further sources throughout the text and in the annexes allow for deeper exploration of particular topics. For companies coming to the business and human rights discussion for the first time, the Guides include a “where to start” section at each step.

The Commission deliberately chose to develop Guides for three very different sectors to provide as wide a demonstration effect as possible on explaining the corporate responsibility to respect under the UN Guiding Principles across a wide range of contexts. What the three Guides together reconfirm is that businesses can have impacts on a wide range of human rights in very different ways. Those looking for a deeper explanation of what the Guiding Principles mean in practice as well as those interested in the process of implementation of international standards will find comparing the three Guides intriguing.

It is important to point out that the Guides don’t provide “all the answers” – and did not set out to do so. Effective corporate policies and practices emerge only from the journey companies will have to take as they move into new operations, new countries and new partnerships, and in each consider their potential human rights impacts. But the Guides do provide an important roadmap. As Jim Baker, a member of the Commission’s expert advisory group for the project noted, “[h]uman rights, like life itself, cannot be reduced to a checklist or to simple slogans. It is only through understanding and reflection that the GPs can become “simple” and applicable. These Guidance publications are designed to further that process.”

The lesson learned is that businesses can identify their potential impacts and how to address them, but it certainly helps to have informed input along the way – from thoughtful colleagues, human rights experts, other businesses in the sector, civil society, and importantly from those potentially affected stakeholders themselves. Indeed the UN Guiding Principles expect engagement with stakeholders. The Commission process to develop the Guides modelled this approach, involving a wide range of representatives from business, trade unions, civil society, government, and academia in an active discussion on what the corporate responsibility to respect “looks like” in each area. Not surprisingly, there were disagreements along the way and no doubt there will be a range of views on whether the Guides have pushed the agenda enough or pushed too hard. Whether the Guides have hit that sweet spot that ensures better and faster implementation of the Guiding Principles by all companies – only time and uptake will tell, but the initial reactions are encouraging.

Over the coming months, IHRB, Shift, and the European Commission will be highlighting the Guides through outreach activities with a wide range of actors around the world, seeking to promote their uptake – and to promote similar rigorous, multistakeholder approaches to implementation in other sectors over the years ahead.

As the Commission’s foreword to the Guide states, “[n]ot so long ago environmental management was something that concerned only a small number of companies. For many companies it has today become a natural part of doing business, considered vital for long-term success. We have a similar vision for the future of business and human rights: where respecting human rights is understood as being an intrinsic part of business excellence.”

Such a world would be a very fitting fifth birthday present for the UN Guiding Principles.

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