Photo: Tanenhaus

According to the UNGP, businesses must, at the very least, respect all internationally recognised human rights. This includes the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), its associated conventions (1966), and the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) eight core conventions on human rights in the workplace. No human right is more important than any other, and nor may companies choose which human rights they want to respect. The principles of the UNGP are not in themselves legally binding, but they should be considered as an explanation of what current international law stipulates in terms of company and state responsibilities and roles as regards respect for human rights.

Discussion point:

Are you familiar with the UN Declaration of Human Rights and its associated conventions?


Companies can both directly and indirectly have negative human rights impacts through their business relationships. Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights that entails them taking steps to avoid causing or contributing to negative impacts through their own operations or their business relationships. Businesses must also seek to prevent and limit negative impacts on human rights when they, due to their business relationships, are directly linked to them, for example if a supplier acts in such a way that violates human rights in the context of mineral extraction.

Depending on whether a company has caused, contributed to, or is directly linked to negative impacts, it is expected to react in different ways.

What steps can companies take when human rights are abused?

Cause: a business uses child labour in a mine

Stop/prevent: the company must stop this and prevent a repeat of it, by, for example, ensuring that the affected children receive schooling

Remedy: families receive financial compensation, school fees are paid

Contribute: a mine releases contaminated water into a river, as do other nearby mines

Stop/prevent/ mitigate: clean the affected water

Contribute to remedy: together with other factories, compensate those affected, pay for clean-up

Linked to: a business sells vehicles to another company guilty of land theft

Use influence: speak with the business, suspend deliveries

Optional to contribute to remedy


Please note that these examples are used here to illustrate “cause, contribute, be linked to”, and is not a recommendation for how companies should act, since this can vary from case to case.

If a business has directly caused a negative impact on human rights, for example by using child labour in a mine, the company must immediately suspend the operations in question, and take preventative steps to ensure that it is not repeated. The business is also responsible to ensure that those affected receive compensation, for example by providing the children’s families with financial support.

Similarly, a business that contributes to a negative impact shall cease the offending operations and contribute to compensation. Such contributory scenarios can, for example, involve a mining company releasing contaminated water into a nearby river, which, together with other mines’ discharges destroy the water and surrounding environment so that the local people are no longer able to use the water or farm the land.

When a business has not caused or contributed to a negative impact itself but is directly linked to one through its business relationships, the company is expected to use its influence to persuade those who have caused or contributed to the negative impact. An example of a business that is directly linked to negative impact is one that sells vehicles to mining companies complicit in land theft. The business can, for example, use its influence through establishing a dialogue with its customer, (preferably together with other suppliers to strengthen their hand in discussions with the customer), suspend deliveries, or in other ways attempt to convince the customer to stop its destructive behaviour.

The extent to which businesses can exert influence is dependent upon the nature of their business relationships, their position in the supply chain, and the size of the business. Influence can also look different: it may involve commercial pressure or joint influence through multi-party initiatives. Who companies can influence also varies. It may be suppliers, customers, joint ventures or governments. If businesses feel that they lack leverage to influence, they should search for ways to increase their leverage. Thus, companies that lack leverage are not exempted from the responsibility to attempt to influence.


Mining company XYZ mines copper at a site in the Philippines. The company has employed a security company to guard the site. It emerges that the security firm has used threatening behaviour towards the local population and has even abused people over a period of many years. The mining company has not done enough to stop this, rather it has allowed this to continue. The mining company has many major customers. One of these is business ABC. ABC buys copper from the mine in question and has only now learnt of the security firm’s abuse. Discuss: how are mining company XYZ, the security company, and buyer ABC involved in the abuse of the local population? Do they cause, contribute to, or are they linked to the abuse? Discuss also how the companies are expected to act according to the UN’s guiding principles.

Discussion points:

Who does your company directly influence and in what way? What scope is there for co-operation? Has your company exercised its influence at any point? What happened when it did so?

Tip! The Shift organisation, which offers advisory services to business and governments, has developed guidelines for companies to help them understand linkages to human rights and how they can take steps to address negative impacts.

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