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Business and Human Rights: Advancing Corporate Accountability

Position Statement Prepared for the 61<sup>st</sup> Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights should continue to consider the issue of corporate responsibility, extend the multi-stakeholder consultation process it initiated last year, and provide for a mechanism, such as the appointment of special advisor, to clarify key concepts and help build consensus around minimum standards.


The United Nations has a valuable role to play in advancing corporate accountability for human rights abuses. It made a major contribution in August 2003, when the U.N. Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights approved the U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (the Norms). The Norms recognize that the fundamental obligation for upholding human rights lies with governments, but that companies do have responsibilities as well. Along with their commentary, the Norms represent the most comprehensive and authoritative standard on corporate responsibility and, as such, fill an important gap in the protection of human rights world-wide.

The Commission on Human Rights, at its 60th session, recognized the importance of business and human rights issues. Through Decision 2004/116 of April 20, 2004, it asked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on the scope and legal status of existing initiatives relating to the human rights responsibilities of businesses. It also requested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights hold broad-based consultations, which took place in Geneva in October 2004 and included governments, U.N. agencies, businesses, trade unions, and civil society groups. The resulting report was submitted in February 2005.

The consultations highlighted the need for further work to advance corporate responsibility. They made evident the proliferation of initiatives on corporate responsibility that, while they mark progress, can present major challenges in holding businesses responsible. Many existing initiatives are voluntary in nature, have limited applicability, fail to meet minimum standards, and neglect to include independent monitoring mechanisms.

The consultations also brought to light differing points of view on fundamental concepts of corporate responsibility, notably “complicity” and the “spheres of influence” within which businesses exercise responsibility. Further clarification of these concepts is needed as the basis for future work to strengthen standards for corporate accountability. Also evident was the need to continue to develop consensus around the need for minimum standards, with the U.N. Norms as the benchmark.

More broadly, Human Rights Watch believes that there is a need for binding standards to constrain corporate actions that could impinge on the enjoyment of human rights. The Norms are not a binding set of standards and do not themselves have the force of law, but they could serve as useful guidance for any government that chooses to develop laws for corporate accountability. Their analysis and commentary could also provide the conceptual basis for a binding international instrument on corporate responsibility. At some point in the future, we hope that the international community will take steps to develop such an international instrument.


In addressing business and human rights issues, the Commission on Human Rights should:

  • Keep business and human rights issues firmly on the agenda for the future, by acknowledging the continued importance of corporate accountability and the relevance of the U.N. Norms;

  • Continue the broad-based consultations process it initiated and ensure wide participation from affected groups;
  • Create an independent mechanism to study key concepts such as “complicity” and “spheres of influence.” For example, the Commission could call for the appointment of a special advisor or independent expert to the Secretary-General on business and human rights, to be named in consultation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This person should be mandated to study fundamental issues, support ongoing consultations, and present recommendations for the further development of minimum standards, and should be requested to provide regular reports on progress;
  • Commit to review progress on an annual basis, beginning in 2006, in order to enhance standards of corporate accountability.

    Last updated March 2, 2005

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