Business and Human Rights
I call on you - individually through your firms, and collectively through your business associations - to embrace, support and enact a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, and environmental practices.
— Kofi Annan
When Kofi Annan initiated the United Nations (UN) Global Compact with business leaders, he aspired to “give a human face to the global market”. It was the turn of the Millennium and the call was to make a conscious choice between words and deeds, poverty and profit, social justice and social inequalities.
Much has changed since: in 2005 a Special Representative of the Secretary General was appointed to identify and clarify issues surrounding corporate responsibility and accountability vis-à-vis human rights; in 2011 the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) proposing the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. Successive initiatives and mechanisms at the UN level have included working groups, expert fora, treaty bodies’ General Comments and joint initiatives with regional organisations. At the national level, a number of states have announced or introduced legislative proposals for mandatory human rights due diligence by companies, which adds explicit legal duties to the “smart mix” of measures recommended in the UNGP. In this context, the EU Parliament’s interest on Human rights due diligence legislation and options for the EU is to be noted. Last but not least, various lawsuits addressing human rights violations related to labour conditions or environmental impact have also been part of advances in this area worldwide.
Despite increased attention on risks and adverse impacts of business operations on human rights, and the development of guidelines, initiatives and case-law, many challenges and obstacles are still hampering that desired progress on the choices to be made. Examples of workers in terribly risky environments, women trafficked in the supply chains, or migrants exploited for profit are still numerous. In addition, there are other ways in which businesses harm human rights: in the last five years, over 2000 attacks took place against human rights defenders working on businesses-related abuses; among the 615 attacks that have been tracked in 2021, nearly 70% were against climate, land and environmental rights defenders; today, about 108 million defenseless children still work in the agricultural sector, often in dangerous conditions and under limited socially responsible regulation by enterprises.
In this light, business and human rights are still often in opposition: companies hardly value the human toll of their profitable production. Governments often fail to protect business-related human rights defenders. But responsible businesses can prevent potential damages and offer space for accountability and redress. States regulations and policies can shape business behaviour and help ensure human rights protection. Recent promising initiatives can foster transformation. If business and human rights actors understood better how they could support each other, change would be more feasible.
This MOOC is a contribution to such understanding. It looks at international standards and principles as well as regional and national practices. In particular, it focuses on the links between business and human rights defenders, case-law, due diligence and children’s rights protection in this area. It aims to be relevant for businesses themselves, state representatives, grassroot organisations working on business related issues, workers and ordinary citizens who wish to inspire a transformation in the way business and human rights relate to each other.
The course is articulated in 2 parts:
Part 1 focuses on the general international framework on the relation between business and human rights. In particular, it summarily explains standards, mechanisms, benefits and challenges in the current set up, especially at the United Nations and regional level. Specific attention will be paid to the UN Guiding Principles, the UN Global Compact, and other recent initiatives, examples and practices.
Part 2 is dedicated to specific themes of pressing value: the protection of human rights defenders working on business-related abuses; the case-law emerging from recent developments; corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the development of legislation on mandatory due diligence; the challenges of intersectionality and in particular the rights of children in relation to business practices. In so doing, the course analyses the links with the international framework and provides examples from different regional areas.
Upon completion of this course participants will have gained:
- Knowledge about key standards, documents and approaches
- Understanding of progress and obstacles in terms of more viable cooperation, from the point of view of companies, states and affected rights-holders
- Ability to identify multi-faceted aspects (pros and cons of each side of the matter)
- Capacity to discuss specific areas and groups/cases of concern
The course is based on a participatory approach aimed at developing and reinforcing personal critical reflection and peer-to-peer learning. Examples from different areas of the world and on different themes allow the identification of cross-regional and cross-cutting issues and enable a global and multidimensional understanding of the topic.
We designed this course for participants (businesses, state representatives, grassroot organisations working on business related issues, workers and ordinary citizens) around the world who are actively interested and engaged in business and human rights work and wish to gain a multidimensional understanding of current developments, key issues and possibilities for transformation.