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UN Report: Tackling Human Rights is the ‘Smart Thing’ to Do

Corporations are “ignoring” their moral obligations by prioritizing profits over human rights, while governments are failing to “regulate and lead by example,” an independent group of United Nations experts said last Tuesday.

Writing in a report to the U.N. General Assembly, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights cited a lack of government leadership as the “biggest challenge” to scaling up effective “human-rights due diligence” as set out in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a 31-item instrument to “protect, respect and remedy” that was unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011.

Similarly, the Guiding Principles maintain that all business enterprises have an independent responsibility to respect human rights, which means exercising the same due diligence to “identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address impacts on human rights,” the report added. 

“Human-rights due diligence is about preventing negative impacts on people,” Dante Pesce, who chairs the working group, said in a statement. “Basically it involves identifying risks to people across the value chain, being transparent about those risks and taking action to prevent or remedy them. To be meaningful, it needs to be informed by real stakeholder engagement, in particular with communities, human rights and environmental defenders and trade unions.”

Despite a recent upswell in investors pressuring companies to step up efforts to prevent human-rights abuses in their supply chains, more must rally before this trend becomes the norm. Likewise, governments need to take greater action beyond the few legal and policy brights spots, which even then are “patchy or uncoordinated,” the report said.

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A key problem? Governments simply are not providing enough guidance on human-rights due diligence for small- and medium-sized enterprises, experts said. Neither are they leading by example in their own roles as economic actors.

But slow progress aside, human-rights due diligence remains an attainable goal for all stakeholders, Pesce said.

“Numerous tools and resources are available and business enterprises can no longer cite a lack of knowledge as an excuse for inaction,” he said. “They just need to get started, and investors and governments should push them along. Evidence is clearly suggesting that doing the right thing is also the smart thing to do.”

Making progress in ameliorating business-related impacts on people’s rights and dignity is a “critical and urgent issue,” Pesce added. “In fact, ensuring that human rights are respected across their own activities and value chains is the most significant contribution most companies can make towards sustainable development.”

Business respect for human rights and human-rights due diligence in practice will be the focus of the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, this November.