Business activity around the world has a profound effect on peoples 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 reportthe outcome of a project by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University School of Law and Human Rights Watchhelps 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:
Our key findings include:
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, http://www.reports-and-materials.org/Ruggie-letter-ESCR-Net-29-Aug-2007.pdf (regarding ESCR-Nets 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, http://www.reports-and-materials.org/Ruggie-Geneva-4-5-Dec-2007.pdf (accessed February 7, 2008).