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Opinion

16 June 2021: UN Guiding Principles at 10

UNGPs10+

When UN member states endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) on 16 June 2011, this was a landmark moment for business respect for human rights. It was also a step forward for efforts to promote more sustainable business.

This was the first time we saw global agreement on the respective roles of governments and businesses on what they need to do to protect and respect people in the context of business activity.

The UNGPs made clear that it is the job of governments to protect people against negative impacts resulting from business activity. Businesses on their side need to respect human rights, regardless of whether or not states live up to their duty to protect human rights. And when there is harm, rights-holders need to have access to effective remedies through judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms – with mechanisms that are accessible and responsive to the diverse situations of rights-holders, particularly those living in vulnerable or marginalized situations.

The UNGPs not only tell states and business, including financial actors, what they need to do to, but also how they should do it. They provide both a normative and an operational framework.

Ten years later, it is time to take stock of progress and build new momentum to increase the pace of implementation. The wider global challenges add to the urgency of this task: the ongoing COVID crisis, the existential climate crisis, inequalities, gender and racial discrimination, shrinking civic space and uncertain human consequences of new technologies. Responsible business that respects people and planet is key to the responses we need.

Against this backdrop, we – as part of our Working Group mandate from the UN Human Rights Council to promote the UNGPs – have undertaken our next decade project (UNGPs 10+). Today as we mark the anniversary, we launch our stocktaking findings looking back at the UNGPs’ first decade and assessing how far we have come.

We are honoured to be joined by a number of dignitaries (video statements available here) sharing their reflections on the UNGPs – UN Secretary António Guterres, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, UN Global Compact Executive Sanda Ojiambo, and UNGPs author John Ruggie – as well as leaders from unions, indigenous peoples, civil society and business.

As we launch our stocktaking findings, we thank all stakeholders (from governments and national human rights institutions to unions, indigenous peoples, civil society, business, and others) who contributed, through numerous UNGPs 10+ dialogues and more than 200 written submissions, to help inform the stocktaking and forthcoming recommendations.

Looking back, our stocktaking highlights that we have seen important progress, but not enough efforts.

The UNGPs have provided a clarity and a common platform for action that didn’t exist before 2011. We have seen some significant uptake in government, business and multilateral policies over the last ten years, with increasing speed especially in the last few years.

Perhaps the greatest innovation is the expectation that businesses exercise human rights due diligence. This concept has provided business with a tool to manage human rights risks – to know and show how they prevent and address risks to people arising in their own operations and across business relationships.

It is now at the centre of legislative action, especially in Europe, with increasing backing from business and investors.

Importantly, as a driver to scale up progress, human rights due diligence has also been taken up by a wider range of actors that influence and shape business, from financial institutions to business organizations.

Overall, the last ten years has demonstrated that change in practice is possible.

But we have not seen enough action. Too few states are using the full range of the smart mix of measures foreseen in the Guiding Principles. Too few businesses make real their responsibility, or even demonstrate awareness of it.

The UNGPs foresaw many of the key issues that need to be improved to realize robust progress in all regions of the world:

  • Ineffective measures by states and business to prevent adverse impacts – including not enough meaningful engagement with workers, communities and others affected by business activity, which over time would pay off with better prevention and trust among stakeholders.
  • Significant barriers to access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuse, such as well-known legal, practical, procedural and jurisdictional hurdles.
  • Lack of policy coherence in governments and at multi-lateral level, but also in business practice – with examples of corporate incoherence ranging from irresponsible lobbying to litigation against human rights defenders and failure to recognize that respect for trade union rights is also part of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.

Looking ahead, we need to seize opportunities and overcome key gaps to make business work for human rights and sustainable development.

First of all, ten years later, the job has only just begun. The persistence of business-related human rights abuses should be a matter of urgent attention and priority by all states and business, as rights-holders continue to experience harm and remain at risk.

The present landscape presents opportunities not to be missed. We need to reinforce the current wave of mandatory due diligence laws and make such laws effective. As highlighted by our companion stocktaking report on institutional investors, we also need to seize the momentum of increasing investor focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. We need to move beyond leaders and see wider investor action to respect human rights through their investment activities.

For the road ahead, respect for human rights needs to be at the centre of a responsible recovery. Similarly, the due diligence standard and the accountability focus of the UNGPs make them a valuable framework for practical achievement of a “just transition” to a green economy. Commitments are not enough, though. Governments and businesses need to walk the talk.

Our stocktaking underlines that greater action by states and businesses needs to be supported by a number of building blocks.

  • Stronger accountability for how states and businesses are meeting their respective duties and responsibilities, and real engagement with stakeholders, including critical voices and recognition of the key role of human rights and environmental defenders.
  • Recognition that economic development without respect for people and the planet is not development.
  • Access to remedy when harms happen is an urgent priority, but it is also about future prevention.
  • Business models must be compatible with respect for people and planet.
  • Investor action is critical for scaling up business respect for human rights.
  • We need to know what works. Corporate transparency and better data on human rights due diligence outcomes for people are key.
  • The race to realize the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and save the climate will only succeed if human rights are protected and respected. So, we need to break down silos between policy initiatives and agendas.
  • Collective challenges require comprehensive action in all parts of the world, including increased capacity building and platforms for learning and accountability, to support races to the top in all regions.

Following the release of our stocktaking reports, we will prepare a roadmap for the next decade of the UNGPs. We will launch the roadmap at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which takes place from 29 November to 1 December.

The first decade demonstrated that change is possible. This provides hope for the next decade, as a foundation to intensify efforts to address remaining gaps and seize existing opportunities. The upcoming roadmap rests on the common platform provided by the UNGPs and the broad, growing movement converging around them UNGPs over the decade.

Today, as the UNGPs turn 10, we are calling on states and businesses to use the anniversary moment to recommit and set clear implementation goals for the coming years, to increase the pace of implementation on the scale needed to deliver impact toward 2030 and beyond. The first opportunity for states to do so is during the 47th Human Rights Council this month.

We invite you all to read our report and take part in the movement to make the next ten years a decade of UNGPs action.

Dante Pesce, Surya Deva, Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai, Anita Ramasastry – UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

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