Principle 4

Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights

What does it mean?

This Principle sets out the UN Global Compact’s overarching expectation of business on human rights, namely, to respect and support human rights. Respecting human rights means a business should use due diligence to avoid infringing human rights (“do no harm”) and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved. In addition, beyond respecting human rights, business is encouraged to take action to support human rights. This means seeing the opportunity to take voluntary action to make a positive contribution towards the protection and fulfillment of human rights whether through core business,strategic social investment/philanthropy, public policy engagement/advocacy, and/or partnerships and other collective action. Action to support human rights should be a complement to and not a substitute for action to respect human rights. Special attention should be paid to the rights of vulnerable groups, including women, children, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, older persons etc.

Why should companies care?

Respect for human rights is the right thing to do, but it is also a business issue. Not respecting human rights posesa number of risks and costs for business including putting the company’s social license to operate at risk,reputational damage, consumer boycotts, exposure to legal liability and adverse government action, adverse action by investors and business partners, reduced productivity and morale of employees.

While governments have the primary duty to protect, respect and fulfill human rights, other organizations and individuals have important complementary roles to play in respecting and supporting human rights. All businesses everywhere, regardless of size or sector and whether or not they are participants in the UN Global Compact, have the baseline responsibility to respect human rights. This has been recognized by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Download Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework.) A joint note by the Global Compact and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the relationship between the Guiding Principles and the commitments undertaken by Global Compact signatories, explains that the “Guiding Principles provide further conceptual and operational clarity for the two human rights principles championed by the Global Compact”.

Respecting and supporting human rights also strengthens a business’ relationships with its stakeholders. For example, workers who are treated with dignity and respect are more likely to be productive and remain loyal to an employer. New recruits increasingly consider the social, environmental and governance record of companies when making their choice of employer. Human rights and inclusive business models can also be a source of innovation for new products or services, access to new markets, help strengthen the social license to operate and to make the business a valued member of the community and society.

What can companies do?

Respecting Human Rights

Business has the potential to impact — positively and negatively — virtually all human rights. Accordingly, business should consider their potential impact on all rights. However, some actual or potential impacts will require special consideration, for example, where the actual or potential impacts are very serious and/or there is a strong connection between the company and the abuse.

For the content of human rights, at a minimum, companies should look to the International Bill of Human Rights and the core International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. The publication Human Rights Translated elaborates the main internationally proclaimed human rights from a business perspective and offers practical examples of how companies have infringed on human rights as well as examples of how businesses have supported the enjoyment of the rights. Although some rights will be more relevant than others in particular circumstances, situations change, so broader periodic reassessment is necessary.

Business must comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate. In the rare situation that national law directly conflicts with international standards, companies should seek ways to honour the principles of internationally recognized human rights. Please click here for our good practice note entitled “Meeting the Responsibility to Respect in Situations of Conflicting Legal Requirements”.

Importantly, the corporate responsibility to respect exists independently of States’ human rights duties. Among other things, this means that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights whether they are operating in an area of weak governance or in a more stable context. In areas where there is weak governance, the risks of infringing human rights may be greater because of the context. For information on how to use conflict sensitive business practices in such contexts, see Guidance on Responsible Business in Conflict-Affected & High-Risk Areas: A Resource for Companies & Investors.