United States: U.N. Guiding Principles: Reflections On The Past Five Years

Last Updated: June 22 2016
Article by Sarah A. Altschuller

Five years ago today, on June 16, 2011, the way we view the human rights responsibilities of companies changed. On that day, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the " Guiding Principles"). This endorsement could have gone unnoticed except by those in the room at the time, a limited number of UN-watchers, and a select few academics. This is decidedly not the case. Instead, the Council's endorsement helped usher in a new era of both private and public action intended to address the human rights impacts of corporate activity.

As an attorney in private practice, my job for more than 10 years has been to advise corporate clients on how to manage the human rights impacts of their operations in a responsible manner. In recent years, as I answer queries from companies that range significantly in both size and sector, I have seen countless examples of how our collective expectations of companies have shifted since 2011. Simply put, and as has been said by others before me, the Guiding Principles are a game-changer.

So, what are the Guiding Principles? Drafted by Professor John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, the Guiding Principles are built around the fundamental expectation that companies should operate with respect for human rights. The Principles provide detailed guidance to companies seeking to operate consistently with that expectation. Specifically, the Guiding Principles state that companies should carry out "human rights due diligence," a process that includes:

assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed. (Principle 17)

Why are the Guiding Principles such a big deal? The Principles could have joined the annals of international guidelines that are drafted, approved, and have no lasting impact. Over the last five years, however, public and private institutions ranging from the European Commission to the American Bar Association have adopted or endorsed core elements of the Principles and used them to drive shifts in business behavior. It may be hard to remember, but at the time Professor Ruggie started his work in 2005, there was no consensus on the human rights responsibilities of companies. Today, as stated in the recently revised OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, "respect for human rights is the global standard of expected conduct" for business.

What are the practical impacts of these changes? Increasing numbers of companies are drafting and implementing robust human rights policies and new corporate standards are emerging on human rights reporting and assurance. Most notably, the expectations set forth in the Guiding Principles are applicable to all companies, not just large multinationals that may be motivated to address human rights concerns by reputational concerns.

I know that we are living in a different world when I get calls from small- and medium-sized companies that are confronting expectations regarding their human rights performance for the very first time. Many of these pressures are coming from governments. Governments around the world are drafting National Action Plans on business and human rights and, consistent with those plans, are drafting legislation and regulations that reinforce the expectation of human rights due diligence.

Many new or contemplated legislative provisions impose transparency requirements on companies. Examples include the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, both of which call for public disclosures on corporate due diligence efforts to address the risks for forced labor in their supply chains. These requirements are consistent with the expectation set forth in the Guiding Principles that companies should be transparent about their efforts to address the human rights impacts of their activities.

Increased levels of transparency have supported the development of new initiatives like the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, which will rank companies on their efforts to manage their human impacts. Notably, a recent survey of 853 corporate executives conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that, of all possible interventions that could enable companies to meet their human rights responsibilities, "a public benchmark" of corporate human rights performance was the top choice. Such benchmarking is not possible without the type of transparency called for by the Guiding Principles.

To be sure, there is a long way left to go. None of the observations made above are intended to minimize the fact that there is much left to do to ensure that those whose rights are negatively impacted by corporate activity have access to appropriate remedies. The Guiding Principles call for the development of public and private grievance mechanisms for victims of human rights harms, but this is an area that has not yet been sufficiently addressed.

It is also true that, within many companies, efforts to internalize the Guiding Principles remain nascent at best. Translating a concept like "respect for human rights" into effective and credible management plans is a difficult challenge even for those companies that are deeply committed to the exercise. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and the nature and complexity of a company's human rights impacts may vary widely depending on the company's size and sector, as well as the locations of its business operations.

That said, it is undeniable that the game has changed. We will, and should, continue to debate what needs to be done in order to ensure that companies meet their human rights responsibilities, but we are now speaking with a common set of terms and referencing an established framework. The professional space in which I work — business and human rights — has emerged as a new field of practice. It was not that long ago that the notion that companies had human rights responsibilities was hugely controversial; today, the U.S. Government has referenced the Guiding Principles as providing a "floor" for business conduct with regard to human rights. Whether a floor, or a solid foundation, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the ways in which the events of June 16, 2011 altered the world of business.

This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.

To view Foley Hoag's Corporate Social Responsibility Blog please click here

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions