Business and human rights: challenges ahead

29.10.2015

In October, Norway joined the group of states with a National Action Plan for implementation of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), while another 20 States or so are in the process of developing one.  Despite many examples of improvements, the challenges in this field are massive and much more needs to be done to prevent and address violations of human rights caused by business activities. 

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Geneva – By H.E. Steffen Kongstad the Ambassador of Norway to the UN in Geneva

In October, Norway joined the group of states with a National Action Plan for implementation of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Another 20 states or so, in all regions of the world, are in the process of developing one.  Surveys shows increasing numbers of companies putting thought and resources into understanding what respect for human rights should mean for their business, and developing innovative practices to manage human rights risks.

While there are many examples of improvements, the challenges in this field are massive. We need to do much more to prevent and address violations of human rights caused by business activities. Governments must step up national efforts and send clear and coherent signals to business through regulation and other incentives. States must speed up international efforts to fill gaps in the global incentive structure, including in the financial field. We also need to do more to address the patchy, unpredictable, often ineffective system of domestic law remedies, which hampers access to remedies for victims of human rights abuses today.

These large challenges make it tempting to look for one effective, simple answer, like a treaty. We are not excluding that an international instruments on a precisely defined narrow area could be necessary. The challenges are, however, so many and so diverse that we cannot achieve real changes on the ground without political will for immediate national action and reform in legislation and policies.

The OHCHR Accountability and Remedy Project is an important effort in this regard. Based on analysis of more than 60 jurisdictions it is already displaying a system of law remedies that lack clarity and coherence about the extent to which corporations may be legally liable, with severe funding problems for private legal action and very low levels of activity by domestic prosecution bodies.

The OHCHR project is supposed to provide recommendations to the Human Rights Council in 2016, but there are some interesting early findings. We can for instance learn from the fairly widespread use of strict liability in relation to labor rights and environmental protection. Human rights due diligence is a potential area for improvement. Some new and interesting ways of attributing fault to corporations are also emerging.

Human rights defenders, victims of corporate related human rights abuses and other civil society actors have a vital and constructive role to play in promoting corporate respect for human rights and in exposing and seeking remedy for the adverse human rights impacts of some businesses. We need these strong voices to encourage and support firm, concrete and immediate action on the ground, at national and international level, by States, businesses and the UN.