Human rights are the basic rights of each human being, independent of race, sex, religion, political opinion, social status, or any other characteristic. Through international human rights conventions, governments commit to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the human rights of their citizens and other individuals within and beyond their borders. A list of the human rights contained in the Universal Declaration, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the three fundamental United Nations agreements on human rights – is included in the Appendices to this Guide. Businesses should also be aware of the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation. In addition, a specific body of law applies in situations of armed conflicts: international humanitarian law. Its rules have two aims: first, protecting people who are not or no longer taking part in hostilities and,secondly, regulating means and methods of warfare.
At this time in history, there are compelling reasons why businesses should involve human rights in their policies and practices. Businesses increasingly need a stable international environment in which to operate, with sustainable markets and a “level playing field” of opportunities. Human rights offer a common framework for businesses to understand societies’ expectations and deliver value to stakeholders in a more sustainable way. This Guide demonstrates that, in a business context, advancing human rights is as much about realizing new opportunities and managing risk as it is about meeting essential global standards.
For business, human rights provide a universal benchmark for minimum standards of behavior. Many national laws and regulations have evolved as a result of a State’s obligation to implement human rights standards. Business must, of course, observe such laws in all countries and jurisdictions in which they operate.
The debate about the nature and scope of companies’ human rights responsibilities is a relatively recent one, as is the idea of applying human rights to business decisions and operations. A number of international efforts have been undertaken to elaborate on the content of human rights relevant to business. One of the most comprehensive efforts resulted in the “Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights” (Draft Norms), developed by a United Nations expert group, the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. While the Draft Norms have no formal legal status, the inter-governmental UN Commission on Human Rights has observed that they have useful elements. Many of the companies that have contributed to this Guide, especially the companies involved in BLIHR, agree that the content of the Draft Norms provides a helpful framework for human rights in business.