Business activity around the world has a profound effect on people’s lives and livelihoods, but international debates about business conduct frequently neglect to fully consider the many ways that businesses can advance or impede the enjoyment of human rights.

Existing corporate social responsibility initiatives, many of which have emerged in response to specific controversies, typically cover only a limited set of rights and apply selectively to individual companies or industries or particular country contexts, such as conflict areas. There are no widely agreed overarching standards for all businesses, but instead many different standards that address select human rights, select companies or industries, or select countries or situations. The result is a messy and inconsistent patchwork of voluntary pledges that have limited application, generally do not fully align with international human rights norms, and in any case are frequently disregarded in practice.

A common global approach is needed to consistently protect human rights in the face of business-related abuses and promote conduct by companies that respects and advances human rights.   

This report—the outcome of a project by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University School of Law and Human Rights Watch—helps lay the factual foundation for such an approach by detailing the different ways in which business practices affect human rights. It presents examples drawn from more than 10 years of Human Rights Watch research that describe a wide variety of business-related abuses and obstacles to the justice sought by victims of these abuses.

To assist readers in making sense of this diverse set of materials and as an analytical contribution to the literature on business and human rights, we have grouped the case material under seven overarching categories rooted in core international human rights instruments: 

  • Right to security of the person

  • Economic and social rights

  • Civil and political rights

  • Non-discrimination

  • Labor rights

  • Rights of communities or groups including indigenous peoples

  • Right to an effective remedy and accountability

Our key findings include:

  • Business impacts on human rights are not limited to sectors that have received the most attention to date, in particular apparel manufacturing and the extractive industries. Rather, the activities of all types of businesses—large and small, domestic and international, public and private—in all sectors can implicate human rights. To properly combat business-related human rights abuse, this broader set of actors and contexts needs to be addressed.
  • In assessing the impact of business activity on human rights, it is important to focus as much on corporate ties with third parties that commit abuse (such as suppliers or government security forces) as on cases in which businesses themselves directly cause harm.
  • Economic interests and other factors can lead governments to neglect victims of business-related abuses. If business-related abuses are to be curbed, greater attention needs to be paid to governmental obligations in the face of abuses perpetrated or facilitated by private actors.
  • Individuals whose rights are affected by businesses often are unable to obtain meaningful redress; in too many cases, they face retaliation for even trying. This finding reinforces the need to promote access to justice for victims of business-related abuses and the importance of further examination of the reasons states are not providing appropriate remedies and reparations.
  • Many companies have not ascribed to business standards addressing relevant human rights and, even when codes of conduct or commitments to social responsibility exist, they often are not adequately implemented. Additional standards and compliance mechanisms are needed.

While this report does not purport to include every business-related human rights abuse documented by Human Rights Watch, let alone reflect incidents of abuse documented by other organizations, of which there are many, it provides an overview and conceptual framework for understanding the impacts business activity can have on human rights. It is intended to complement research and analysis of these important issues by the United Nations (UN) and others.1

Our overarching conclusion is that global intergovernmental standards on business and human rights are needed. Such standards will be important in their own right and will provide a common framework and a spur for domestic and other efforts to address the full range of abuses documented below.

1 The UN Special Representative on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, Professor John Ruggie, announced in mid-2007 that he would examine global patterns of abuses allegedly involving companies and the policy implications that might be drawn from them. Letter from John Ruggie, Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General on business and human rights, to the International Network on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), August 29, 2007, (regarding ESCR-Net’s survey of corporate human rights abuses). The initial findings of this study were presented in December 2007. See John Ruggie, "Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights," summary report of the Special Representative on business and human rights on consultation in Geneva, December 4-5, 2007, (accessed February 7, 2008).