Report Summary

Over the last decade, the field of business and human rights has seen a dramatic evolution, from a situation in which companies and human rights activists were at odds, to one in which stakeholders have begun to approach a common understanding of the risks, challenges, and opportunities involved.

This evolution is best represented by the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement in 2011 of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  This watershed event was, however, only “the end of the beginning”, in the words of John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on human rights and transnational corporations. Spectacular failures of human rights protection still claim headlines. On the positive side, many companies are now more focused than ever on human rights and how to apply the 2011 Guiding Principles. This study finds that corporate acceptance of a responsibility to respect human rights is widespread, but so is confusion about what that responsibility means in practice.

Date Published: March 16th 2015

Why read this report

  • Companies overwhelmingly perceive a responsibility to respect human rights. Four-fifths (83%) of respondents say business is an important player in respecting human rights. In each of 11 clusters of human rights, a majority say their companies’ operations have an impact.
  • The “business case” for respecting human rights tends to rest on behaving ethically and maintaining good relations with employees and others, rather than on short-term risk management or financial considerations. The main driver is “building sustainable relationships with local communities” (48%).
  • Companies are still learning what their human rights responsibilities mean in practice. While most acknowledge the importance of the issue, 54% have no policy statement referencing human rights, and only 22% have a publicly available statement of policy on this issue.
  • The main barriers to addressing human rights are lack of understanding of responsibilities (30%), lack of resources (27%), and lack of training and education for all employees (25%)
  • Responsibility for respecting human rights tends to be diffused among departments, including corporate social responsibility, human resources, and strategy. Of all corporate functions and levels, CEOs were most likely to take the lead (44%) or to be actively involved (28%) in corporate human rights efforts.
  • Corporate communications on human rights are more internal (42%) than external (27%). About one-fourth (23%) communicate on human rights as part of corporate social responsibility activities, while 21% do not communicate about human rights at all.
The United Nations' 2011 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights "mark the end of the beginning. Now that we have a common foundation of minimum standards and processes, they will need to be developed in a more granular way."
John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on human rights and transnational corporations

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