Is the U.S. getting down to business on business and human rights?


The U.S. National Action Plan on responsible business is an opportunity to improve protections for human rights defenders and encourage business to proactively engage on human rights. In this official submission, ISHR highlights key elements for a successful process and outcome.

(Geneva) - The U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct should be an opportunity to take on new and meaningful initiatives to protect human rights defenders and defend civil society’s role in ensuring corporate accountability.

Abuses and violations committed against communities and defenders working on environmental and business and human rights issues have become ever more common. Corporate accountability defenders from AfricaLatin America, and Asia face threats and intimidation, ranging from attacks on their reputations to attacks on their lives. National Action Plans (NAPs) in line with the UN Guiding Principles are a key tool for protecting these defenders and ensuring accountability.

ISHR today submitted a paper on how the NAP can advance protection and empowerment of human rights defenders working on business and human rights, with recommendations on both process and substance. In the past, ISHR has offered similar submissions to the governments of Ireland and the UK.

U.S. officials have talked about the NAP publicly as an opportunity to be ‘responsive to the international community’s call for implementation of these standards’, to ‘demonstrate leadership’, and to help U.S. businesses consolidate a reputation for being ‘responsible partners in development’. The U.S. NAP could, indeed, be a model for other countries; but even those who have explicitly addressed defenders can and should do more.

‘We appreciate the historic efforts that the U.S. has put into supporting civil society globally, including at the highest levels, and their desire to consult broadly in the development of the NAP,’ says ISHR Programme Manager Michael Ineichen. ‘We know putting pen to paper, and turning paper into policy, will require a significant amount of political will. But a NAP will also only work if it is informed by those who have the most at stake.

'Human rights defenders must play a central role in the development of the NAP, and NAP outcomes must reflect defenders’ needs, including in terms of facilitation of their work and protection against reprisals, both official and corporate.’

The recommendations touch on many issues that were raised in the U.S. NAP consultations and other stakeholder submissions. These include the need to adopt a broad scope for the NAP to cover both domestic and overseas operations; to improve transparency and inclusiveness of consultations; to facilitate access to information about business and human rights, including violations by businesses and host governments; and ensure policy coherence across U.S. government agencies and functions (see full list of recommendations below).

‘We are at a stage in the global debate on business and human rights, when simply "doing no harm" might not be enough,’ Mr. Ineichen added. ‘The U.S. NAP should include strong, clear expectations for both government - through public procurement, investment schemes, and economic statecraft - and corporations with regard to preventing and remedying human rights abuses.

‘Whether at the UN or the OECD, the shareholders’ meeting or the boardroom, the field or the factory floor, the mitigating human rights impacts of businesses should be a priority. States and corporations need to get down to business to ensure that defenders and affected communities can exercise their rights and seek justice.’

Read the full submission to the U.S. government, titled Getting Down to Business: Using the NAP to Support Human Rights Defenders and Advance Corporate Accountability.


  • Expand the scope of consultations on the NAP process to reach human rights defenders, grassroots activists, and marginalised communities both domestically and internationally.
  • Facilitate civil society participation in the NAP process by improving transparency, accountability, and timeliness of communications.
  • Outline clear roles and protections for human rights defenders at all points in the NAP process.
  • Recognise the essential role of, and the risks faced by, human rights defenders and civil society specifically in the area of responsible business conduct, and ensure coherence with related policy agendas.
  • Protect and promote the work of human rights defenders through policies, including public procurement, and provision of adequate funding support by the government to defenders and civil society working on business and human rights.
  • Improve access to information for both civil society and the private sector on human rights risks in host countries.
  • Address recommendations made by relevant UN experts in relation to business and human rights and human rights defenders in this context.
  • Put in place expectations for proactive U.S. business engagement to promote human rights and protect human rights defenders and civil society space.


Contact: Michael Ineichen, Programme Manager Corporate Accountability, on or + 41 78 827 77 86.