Human Rights and Business

“Today, few question the central tenet that all organs of society, including business have responsibilities with respect to advancing the protections of Human Rights. This is a clear sign of a growing recognition that Human Rights are "everyone's business"."

Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

As our website is under construction, you will probably find some older work on our current pages. 


Traditionally Business or corporations were not seen as accountable actors in the Human Rights arena.

It is still well recognised in International Law that States have the primary responsibility to promote, secure the fulfillment of, respect, ensure respect of and protect human rights. And that it’s up to States to ensure that business enterprises respect human rights.

While primarily addressed to states, the Universal Declaration also calls on ‘every organ of society’ to respect, promote, and secure human rights. This is now often seen as the (legal) foundation for obligations which apply not only to states but also to non-state actors including private businesses.The world has changed significantly since human rights were introduced in 1948. Economic globalisation has created a world that is more interdependent than ever before. Due to an explosion in international trade and financial relationships and a corresponding expansion in the power of large transnational corporations and financial institutions, business has become a major player in the international arena.

And while the activities of businesses provide employment for countless millions, even sometimes resulting in fulfilling certain human rights such as work or education, a variety of daily business practices may negatively affect human rights. Companies may violate human rights through their employment practices, or through the manner in which their production processes impact on workers, communities and the environment.

During the 1980s and 1990s many companies to adopted codes of conduct (often triggered to do so because of human rights violations having emerged) and a growing corporate social responsibility movement led to numerous voluntary codes.

Examples of such codes are:


From responsibility to liability?

However, though a welcome signal of corporate commitment, most voluntary codes have proven to be insufficient. Many codes are very vague in regard to human rights commitments.

The Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights , or UN Human Rights Norms for Business, took shape in this context. The growing acceptance of international human rights laws and standards made it inevitable that companies would face the question of their responsibilities towards human rights.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2005 appointed Harvard Professor John Ruggie as ‘special representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises and business’ in 2005. After having submitted an interim rapport in February 2006, Ruggie – on behalf of the Human Rights Council – in april 2008 and april 2009 presented two reports that both had great impact.

Corporations, Ruggie argued and the Human Rights Council adopted, have a responsibility to “to respect human rights”. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are now in place and progressively guide businesses as a carrot and a stick.

Parallel to these developments at the UN level, more and more liability cases are being started (most in the USA and UK), settled and won. The first Dutch case was started last year, where several individuals and Milieudefensie (Dutch Section Friends of The Earth) have brought a case against Shell’s -The Netherlands based- mother company for human rights violations of and environmental damages by Shell Nigeria in Nigeria. Developments in these cases are published (in Dutch) on a Milieudefensie website.

More and more International Law seems to be ready for the switch from Corporate Responsibility to Corporate Accountability.

For a good and obvious reason: Human Rights indeed are everyone's business!