Human Rights For Business Is Not Working Yet

By Anna Dannreuther, Writer 16 Jun 2016
Economic, Workplace

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the UN Human Rights Council’s adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Today we take a look at what, if any, responsibilities businesses have to protect human rights.

Do businesses have to respect human rights?

Businesses are under two types of obligation to respect human rights:

  1. General law – that is, laws made by Parliament that have the effect of (intentionally or not) ensuring businesses comply with our human rights; and
  2. Non-binding Responsibilities – These are international guidelines or rules that apply to businesses such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which place responsibilities on businesses to protect people’s human rights.

Who’s affected and how do laws and guidelines help?


A lot of emphasis has been placed on the need for businesses to protect the human rights of their workers. This is shown through the promotion and enforcement of workers’ rights and anti-discrimination laws. For instance, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for businesses to discriminate against others based on their sex, race, religious or belief, sexual orientation, age or disability.

Businesses must also respect the human rights of their customers. For example, by taking appropriate steps to protect their customers’ personal data. This came to the fore in the Apple v FBI case in the USA when Apple refused to help the FBI bypass the security code of the a terrorist’s iPhone, because it wanted to respect its users’ privacy rights.

Businesses should also ensure that their activities do not infringe the human rights of people and communities affected by their activities. Non-binding guidelines such as the UN Global Compact show that businesses have an ethical duty to promote environmentally friendly practices and make sure they are not taking any part in human rights abuses.

What’s corruption got to do with it?


Businesses must also make sure they do not participate in corruption. The United Nations has previously described corruption as an “enormous obstacle to the realization of human rights”. This is because it can undermine confidence in democratic institutions and the rule of law. The Bribery Act 2010 was made to combat this problem. Amongst other things, the Act requires businesses to put procedures in place to prevent its staff from committing bribery or being bribed.

So what are these UN Guiding Principles?

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for governments and companies to respect and protect human rights. These principles were written by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, and are generally known as the “Guiding Principles” or “Ruggie Principles.”


There are three pillars to the Guiding Principles:

  1. PROTECT. States have a responsibility to protect people against human rights violations by third parties.
  1. RESPECT. Companies have a responsibility to avoid violating people’s human rights.
  1. REMEDY. The state has a responsibility to provide individuals with access to remedies for human rights violations.

The Guiding Principles are not legally binding. This has been criticised because businesses cannot be expected to properly protect human rights without any state powers to investigate abuses and enforce human rights laws.

Ways the UK government can make sure companies respect human rights


Because of the Human Rights Act, private companies often have to respect the standard of human rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when they are contracted by Government bodies to perform public duties. This is because they are considered to be acting on behalf of the public body, which does have to comply with the ECHR.

Another way governments ensuring companies respect human rights is by making them report on the effect of their activities on human rights in society. For example:

  • Under the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive (2014/95/EU), big organisations will have to address social, community and human rights issues in their financial reports.
  • Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, big businesses must make statements explaining the steps taken to ensure that there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains.

The Future


There appears to be a greater focus on the interaction between businesses and human rights. At the 2016 International Labour Conference, it was suggested that there be a new, international, legally binding standard on human rights due diligence in global supply chains. It is yet to be seen whether or not this will actually happen, but it seems that without binding laws, companies may continue to commit human rights abuses unpunished.

Tina Turner image © Herry Lawford, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence. Image of rugby ball © NikRugby23!, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.. G4S image © Lars Schmidt, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.

About The Author

Anna Dannreuther Writer

Anna Dannreuther is a barrister at Field Court Chambers practising in public, employment, and commercial law. She is a trans ally and has worked extensively on human rights issues, including at the European Court of Human Rights and with NGO partners.

Anna Dannreuther is a barrister at Field Court Chambers practising in public, employment, and commercial law. She is a trans ally and has worked extensively on human rights issues, including at the European Court of Human Rights and with NGO partners.