This Thursday, it will be five years since the United Nations Human Rights Council first adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This post argues that while the UK has demonstrated its commitment to these principles and the protection of human rights in business, there is still room for improvement.
Why were the UN Guiding Principles created?
By 2011, the expansion of multinational enterprises saw the increase of international human rights abuses facilitated by globalisation. Nike was criticised for allowing sweatshops, the Ivory Coast was the victim of toxic waste dumping, and diamond retailers were fuelling conflict in Africa. There was a need to create a common global standard for all business activity to ensure respect for human rights.
On 16 June 2011, the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) addressed this need.
What are the UN guiding principles?
The 31 guiding principles follow the “protect, respect and remedy” framework, which centres around 3 pillars:
- the State has a duty to protect against human rights abuses by businesses
- there is a corporate responsibility to respect human rights
- there must be access to a remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses
In 2013 the UK government launched the (world’s first) National Action Plan, which described how the UK would help implement the guiding principles in the UK and abroad.
What has the UK done?
Prior to the 2011 UNGPs, the UK had already ratified various international treaties, requiring it to pass national laws attempting to protect people’s human rights from violations by companies.
Here are some of those key laws and the human rights they protect (followed by the human rights they protect as set out in the the European Convention on Human Rights):
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 promotes safe working conditions for employees (Articles 2 & 3).
- The Data Protection Act 1998 protects the privacy (Article 8) of all individuals whose data comes into contact with the company.
- Section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 places a responsibility on company directors to take their employees’ interests into account when acting on behalf of the company. Additionally, Regulations added to the Act in 2013 require public companies to consider the impact of their operations on human rights in an annual report.
- The Equality Act 2010 protects against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, race, sex, sexual orientation, and many others. This Act has been crucial in upholding Article 14, the right not to be discriminated against, and Article 9, freedom of religion, in employment settings.
- The Modern Slavery Act 2015 places responsibilities on companies to ensure there is no human trafficking taking place at any point in their supply chain. This protects against slavery (Article 4).
If a company breaks any of these laws, it can be taken to court. If found against, it may have to pay fines or compensation to an individual, or even have some of its directors be sent to prison.
Five years on…
As well as the laws protecting us from human rights violations by company, the government also runs a separate complaints procedure. Since 2011, the UK National Contact Point (NCP), part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has been tasked with handling complaints relating to multinational companies and their human rights compliance (amongst other things). However, out of 25 human rights cases brought to the NCP since 2011, only one has been fully accepted and concluded. Campaigners have criticised the NCP’s procedures and organisation, and outlined ways in which it could be more effective.
Some of the key cases leading to these criticisms include:
- Reprieve v British Telecommunications plc, a claim that BT was facilitating US drone strikes in Yemen. This was rejected because of a lack of evidence.
- Reprieve v G4S plc, a claim alleging that G4S was supplying janitorial services to Guantanamo Bay. The NCP rejected this, recommending that it be re-submitted to the USA NCP.
- Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International v Shell, claimed that Shell was breaching human rights with its oil operations and Nigeria. The case was withdrawn after being put on hold by the NCP while the Dutch NCP concluded its own investigation.
The good news, sort of
The good news is that efforts to ensure companies uphold human rights apear to be increasing. The G7, made up of seven countries that meet annually to discuss global issues, met in June 2015 and discussed enhancing supply chain transparency and accountability. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s national equality body, recently published guidance helping company directors ensure human rights are respected (see our post about it). The UK Government just updated the National Action Plan in May 2016, demonstrating its commitment to the protection of human rights in business.
The key is making sure these efforts are more than lofty rhetoric from companies jumping onto a fashionable bandwagon.
- To see what human rights do for equality, click here.
- To learn more about the key laws that protect workers’ rights, click here.
- To learn more about the Modern Slavery Act 2015, click here.