Celebrating 10 years of the UNGPs: what's next?

Anna Triponel

June 14, 2021
Our key takeaway: Over the course of a decade, the UNGPs have completely reshaped what it means for business to address impacts on people, but the path forward requires leaning in even further on access to remedy, bridging governance gaps and breaking down siloes with the climate and environment and sustainable development agendas.  

Marking the 1 anniversary of the endorsement of the ground-breaking UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights published a stock-taking report on the status of UNGPs implementation. Below are some of the overarching findings:

  • The “normative clarification” of the concept of human rights due diligence (HRDD) over the past decade is “the most influential contribution of the UNGPs.” The UNGPs not only outlined the core elements of HRDD—identify, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts, and account for how they are addressed—but also established HRDD as the “cornerstone of the business responsibility to respect human rights.” Since 2011, the HRDD framework has given rise to existing and emerging regulations on business, human rights and the environment. What’s more, “the uptake of the human rights due diligence standard by organizations framing and influencing business operations and decision-making in different regimes has created what can be best described as a consolidated web of pressure, where a range of different actors are mandating or incentivizing business to respect human rights.”
  • Despite exponential progress in key areas, some challenges have persisted and new obstacles have arisen—showing that the journey is far from complete. One of the most troubling issues is the lack of access to remedy and justice for people harmed by companies. Barriers to remedy are not unique to a handful of the most regressive legal systems, but are in fact ubiquitous across the globe. Despite some courtroom successes for victims of corporate abuses, especially in recent years, more work needs to be done by governments and companies alike to facilitate remedy. Another challenge is a continued, fundamental “disconnect between improvements at the policy level and human rights due diligence in business practice.” Finally, “the key standards of the UNGPs have been largely absent” from other global policy agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement—all the more significant because “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.”
  • We are not yet on a linear path forward and progress needs to happen on multiple different fronts. For one, governments need to push forward with not only regulation but other policy tools to “incentivize responsible business.” There is also “a need to leverage the financial sector and the momentum of the increasing focus” on ESG among mainstream investors. For their part, companies will need to recognise the ways in which their own business models and practices (e.g. supply chain purchasing practices) contribute to human rights harms, and disclose more about their efforts to respect human rights—including actual outcomes on the ground.

And because we are celebrating an anniversary after all, we’re providing you with the gift of a longer update for this one! Here are some of the things we’ve been reading and listening to this week as we celebrate the 10 anniversary of the UNGPs:

For more, see Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights at Ten: Taking Stock of the First Decade. Report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, A/HRC/47/39 (June 2021)

“It’s not what you do with your money [as a business], it’s how you make your money: how you treat your workers, how you interact with the communities in which you operate.”                      

Professor John Ruggie, Building Bridges for Impact: A Conversation with Professor John Ruggie (June 2021)

“The way in which CSR was defined in the past was, ‘Do good things, whatever you think they might be.’ Where the UN Guiding Principles differ is, they didn’t simply tell companies what to do, they also told companies how to do it. … They are the source [you go to] in the sense that they are guiding principles; they are not a field manual. They’re not something you take off the shelf and then you plug in and your problem is solved. They are principles informing conduct.”                      

Professor John Ruggie, Building Bridges for Impact: A Conversation with Professor John Ruggie (June 2021)

“One of the things that we’ve seen over the recent period in the last two or three years is more focus on governance, on the role of boards, on the idea that, not only is this not a voluntary thing you do in how you spend your profits, but it’s part of how you make your profits. But on top of that, it’s not just the things that your team do who are labeled social compliance or community liaison, it’s something that the entire organisation is understanding and responding to in the different functions—and that comes down from the top.”                          

      Caroline Rees, President and Co-Founder, Shift, Building Bridges for Impact: A Conversation with Professor John Ruggie (June 2021)

“Over the last ten years, companies have crystallized the UN Guiding Principles as their reference point from which to start their work. Terms such as ‘human rights due diligence,’ ‘remedy,’ ‘cause, contribution, direct linkage,’ ‘leverage’—that’s really now a shared language, and I don’t think we can underestimate that importance. … It gives us a common basis on which to have a conversation.”                      

Andrea Shemberg, Chair, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, 10 key insights about the UNGPs at 10, in 10 minutes with Andrea Shemberg (June 2021)

“We talk about policy incoherence on the State side, but it’s true also on the company side. The human rights message still has not made its way into a whole lot of big and important spaces inside of many companies, including legal departments or those departments dealing with early project development. So human rights is still often seen as this add-on, or something that prevents and slows business instead of being integral to helping the company do good business.”  

Andrea Shemberg, Chair, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, 10 key insights about the UNGPs at 10, in 10 minutes with Andrea Shemberg (June 2021)

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