Human rights and businesses: how can one assess the corporate responsibility to protect human rights?

Three tensions between society and the individual are at the origin of human rights: the individual’s desire to preserve his freedom, the search for equality, and the quest for brotherhood. After the second world war, the United Nations translated these rights into international texts.

After the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) that obligates member states to respect the fundamental rights to which every worker is entitled and the United Nations Global Compact (2000) introducing the notion of responsibility within companies’ sphere of influence, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011) seek to regulate the entire relationship between corporations and human rights. Thus, according to the UN Guiding Principles, companies should not only avoid infringing these rights, but also prevent and mitigate serious impacts within their entire sphere of influence. While these Principles constitute a milestone in the definition and understanding of the relationship between human rights and corporations, the rules for their application are still under debate. Since their publication, several initiatives have emerged to turn these theoretical principles into practical reality.

While some companies show good practices, the real challenge today is to move from engagement to action, notably by creating and strengthening their due diligence process on this subject. This appears all the more important in that binding legislation on the subject is being contemplated at several regulatory levels.

The model proposed here is designed to assess the quality of the methods used by companies to manage their human rights responsibility, by measuring their efforts to implement a framework favourable to the development of good practices. This model is adaptable and can apply to all business sectors. Some qualitative indicators, however, depend on the analyst’s view on issues specific to the sector he covers.

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