Skip to content


Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Respecting Human Rights Through Due Diligence

The UN’s top expert on business and human rights, Harvard Professor John Ruggie. Photo courtesy of the European ParliamentBy John Ruggie

I’d like to elaborate on Jeff Kaplan’s post on March 31, which discussed the role of Compliance and Ethics Officers in enabling their companies to respect human rights.

As custodians of the values that animate the best and most sustainable business conduct, they may find parallels and support for their work in human rights due diligence, a robust human rights risk management process for business that has been developed under my UN mandate as Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights. Let me explain.

In March, I released the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. They provide the first authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity. The UN Human Rights Council will consider formal endorsement in June 2011.

The Guiding Principles are the product of six years of research and extensive consultations involving governments, companies, business associations, civil society, affected individuals and groups, investors and others. They outline how States and businesses should implement the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework in order to better manage business and human rights challenges. That Framework, which I proposed in 2008, was unanimously welcomed by the Council at the time, and has since enjoyed extensive global uptake by all stakeholder groups and other international initiatives, including ISO 26000.

The Principles are organized under the UN Framework’s three pillars:

  • The State Duty to Protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication.
  • The Corporate Responsibility to Respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and address adverse impacts with which they are involved.
  • The need for greater Access to Remedy for victims of business-related abuse, both judicial and non-judicial.

The scope of a company’s responsibility to respect human rights—the Framework’s second pillar –includes avoiding adverse human rights impacts through the company’s direct operations and relationships. The due diligence necessary to meet that responsibility has the hallmarks of other business risk management systems with which the readers of this blog may be familiar; such as safety, environment, and anticorruption.

What is unique about the due diligence needed to respect human rights is its perspective. It is about respecting the dignity and value of all people. It asks companies to focus on adverse impacts not just on the company’s bottom line, but also on individuals and society. This approach resonates with the codes of conduct of the best-run global companies.

Respecting human rights requires engagement and dialogue. Therefore, the third pillar of the Framework—the need for greater access to remedy—includes a call for companies to supplement familiar whistleblower systems with grievance mechanisms that encourage employees, communities, and other affected stakeholders to raise any concerns they have in order to resolve them early and effectively through direct discussion with the company–before they accumulate, concretize, and erupt into litigation and public campaigns.

As companies worldwide begin to manage their human rights risks through due diligence, the expertise and experience of those in companies who already manage systems to prevent and mitigate harmful business impacts will become a very important resource for companies.

John Ruggie, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an Affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, is the Special Representative for the UN Secretary General on Business and Human Rights.

Share this post


Comments are closed for this article!