There must be something about this week in February. No less than three conferences were held in London covering the UN Guiding Principles and Human Rights (sometimes referred to as the Ruggie principles). Although each conference had a different audience the key issues being discussed were what these principles are and how they apply to businesses, including law firms.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights implement the UN ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework’ endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. They apply to all business and provide a clear statement of business enterprises responsibilities with respect to human rights.
Ruggie’s framework is built on three pillars; the state duty to protect human rights, a corporate responsibility to’Respect’ human rights, and the right of greater access by victims to remedies. For business, it’s the challenge of understanding how the principles apply, what a human rights policy would require, and what ‘due diligence’ involves. It requires understanding of a business’s impacts on human rights, both directly and indirectly. And then working out how to ensure that human rights issues are addressed both in the business and in its supply chain.
The Guiding principles are voluntary, but have become the global ‘best practice’ standard. The impact of its influence beyond ‘soft law’ is already being seen by the inclusion within labour codes and other codes of conduct in contracts.
In the same way as criteria setting out sustainability requirements for suppliers in tenders and contracts is impacting business across the supply chain, the impact of the Guiding principles will be felt by suppliers further down the supply chain. A lot of work still has to be done though to get companies to understand the practicalities of implementing the principles, what human rights policies should be developed and how application of the Guiding Principles might deter legal risk. Lawyers should think about their own practices more closely.