Global Leadership Bulletin

A journal of leaders, by leaders, and for leaders

UN: Companies should develop capacity on human rights!

A brush-up on the highlights from the UN annual forum on business and human rights

In the beginning of December the UN held its third, and most successful, annual forum on business and human rights. The main purpose of the forum was to evaluate progress of the corporate implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were developed by the UN special representative and Harvard Professor, John Ruggie, and unanimously endorsed in 2011.

Companies, civil society and states were all represented voicing their opinions in the discussion on who should take the first steps towards implementing the UNGPs that define a company’s respect for human rights. The answer was clear. The responsibility lays with the companies and their respective managements boards. Among the corporate representatives present at the forum, there was a common understanding that respect for human rights can only strengthen and contribute to a company’s profile.

Respect for human rights is an asset

This view was emphasized by Phil Chamberlain, Head of External Stakeholder Engagement at C&A, when he stated that: “Companies benefit from respect for human rights”. He quickly elaborated that by “benefit” he did not only mean increased financial profit. Respect for human rights is the minimum expectation for all businesses, but not solely because of the “business case”, but because it is their fundamental responsibility to respect human dignity. For way too long businesses based decisions in regard to responsible production, supply chain management and recruitment merely on the business case; this approach does not consider or ensure the protection of human dignity, let alone the respect for human rights.

UN Global Compact

Respect for human rights was first set on the political agenda in 2000, with the establishment of the UN Global Compact. Companies could now voluntarily communicate their respect for human rights, but the UN Global Compact did not provide guidelines as to how this could be put into practice in a company. The guidelines, that define how a company can demonstrate respect for human rights, finally came in 2011 with the global endorsement of the UNGPs. The UNGPs provide the minimum level of compliance a company must implement in order to respect human rights. All companies no matter their size, sector or country of origin, are therefore expected to perform “human rights due diligence”. “Human rights due diligence” can be boiled down to: identifying potential and actual adverse impacts on human rights, prevention, mitigation or remediation of adverse impacts, tracking effectiveness and communicating the results.

One global minimum standard

The UNGPs have thus defined a minimum standard for each and every company’s effort in CSR; a systemized and simple set of guidelines that define how companies can respect human rights. The UNGPs make it easier and more cost efficient for companies to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility, as they now have a predefined set of guidelines, thus saving them the time and money spent on developing a company-specific approach to CSR. The strength of the UNGPs is that they’re global, generic and relatively easy to comply with. Even financial institutions see the benefit of having one standard measure for ensuring their responsible investments.

Session on export credit agencies

Denmark stood out as a front running example, at the UN forum in Geneva, at a specific session on export credit agencies, which the Danish export credit agency, EKF, and GLOBAL CSR had organized with ECA Watch. EKF presented how they apply the UNGPs. It was clear that the panel, representing EKF’s sister organization in Norway, ECA Watch and indigenous peoples from Brazil, as well as the audience, were all impressed by EKF’s leading efforts.

Export credit agencies are institutions operating in the nexus of states and companies. Denmark is among the 25 countries, which either have or are in the process, of developing national action plans for the implementation of the UNGPs. The UNGPs provide for a sound basis for the implementation of a common minimum standard for CSR in the corporate environment. The challenge is, as it was highlighted by the Economist Group’s session “Corporate Respect for Human Rights”, that companies still need to develop capacity on how to implement the UNGPs in their business. Training and capacity development on human rights is therefore the next step for companies to ensure respect for human rights and thus the basic compliance part of their CSR. The Economist Group found that more than 85 per cent of the population considers human rights a relevant and important area for businesses to manage. The consumer demands for social responsibility will therefore only increase.

Develop your capacity on human rights

The recommendation and advice to the companies at the annual forum was clear and concise: Develop your capacity on human rights and begin your implementation of the UNGPs! As Ruggie described the development during the final presentation at the Forum: The implementation of the UNGPs is like a tide wave, slowly but surely building up strength, before washing over all corporate activity.


Sune Skadegaard Thorsen is the owner of GLOBAL CSR; a consultancy specialized in the Corporate Social Responsibility and advising companies on the implementation of the UNGPs. He is an expert adviser to the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights as well as a board member of IMPA ACT and AIM Progress. He worked on business and human rights since 1996.

CarolinaDiaz_LönborgCarolina Diaz-Lönborg is a CSR Adviser at GLOBAL CSR and is responsible for course activity and communication. She holds a masters degree in Political Communication and Management, from the Copenhagen Business School. 


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