Human rights: 10 years on and businesses have a new responsibility

June 2021 marks 10 years since the passing of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), but as Global Action Plan's Désirée Abrahams explains, corporate impacts on the environment are emerging as a new frontier in protecting society.

Human rights: 10 years on and businesses have a new responsibility

The UNGPs enshrined the concept of human rights due diligence, which importantly, has been incorporated into many business operating standards, such as the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, IFC Performance Standards and ISO 26000.

Critically, the concept of human rights due diligence has witnessed inclusion in legislation, seen in the Modern Slavery Acts of the UK and Australia, France’s Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law (2017) and the Netherland’s Child Labour Due Diligence Law (2019). Add to this, the charge of the European Union towards mandatory human rights due diligence, and the growing trend towards a hardening of the operating landscape for business, with respect to their impact on society, is clearly apparent. 

Yet while businesses continue to grapple with what it means to ‘know and show’ they respect human rights, the triple environmental crisis we now face in the form of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, will inevitably force companies to re-evaluate their existing approaches to human rights due diligence, and consider how their actions are impacting both the environment and human rights in concert. 

While ‘Our Common Future’ by the Brundtland Commission marked the beginning of sustainable development as far back as 1987 and talked to the interconnectedness of society and the environment, until now, there have been minimal attempts, by both governments and businesses, to understand and address the links between both issues.

Enter – Resolution 45/30 – respecting a child’s right to a clean and healthy environment, recently passed by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2020. Akin to the UNGPs, Resolution 45/30 is based on foundational principles regarding accountability, namely – states have a duty to protect human rights, companies have a separate responsibility to respect them.  

In positing a company’s responsibility to act on environmental harms they contribute to from a rights-based perspective, for the first time in history, companies are now expected to consider the human impacts arising from their business operations and activities that engender environmental consequences. To illustrate, think of the adverse health impacts to the young and old arising from pollution generated by a company’s business operations.

This is a marked departure from other international norms on pollution which have, to date, only considered the environmental effects of pollution – making it a gamechanger for people and the planet.

And while Resolution 45/30 is a non-binding instrument, don’t be fooled into thinking it doesn’t have appeal to influence harder forms of law.

New forms of legislation echoing its sentiment are already gathering pace, highlighted in the 2020 announcement of the Environmental Justice For All Act, championed by US Vice-President Kamala Harris. Concepts of equity and justice are up-front and centre in the Act. At its core, it would recognise the right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment for all Americans, if passed.

Responsible businesses shouldn’t wait till legislation comes. The expectations for the private sector within Resolution 45/30 are clear and businesses should start to take action now.

Désirée Abrahams, senior business engagement manager, Global Action Plan

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