Business, Environmental Human Rights, and the Role of Geneva
Last updated: 13 Dec 2022
Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined due to the environmental nature of some human rights, which have been progressively more recognized and protected. If we are to tackle environmental challenges without leaving anyone behind, businesses must respect both the environment and environmental rights, and ensure they are not violated in their conduct of business operations and beyond. This update provides a brief overview on the connections among business, environment and human rights, and the role International Geneva plays in strengthening such links.
- 3 ways to integrate human rights into business resilience | Dorothée Baumann-Pauly and Priya Vithani | WEF | 10 December 2022
- Advancing a Human Rights-Based Approach to the Global Biodiversity Framework | OHCHR & UN EMG | December 2022
“Businesses have a responsibility, at a minimum, to align their activities that may affect biodiversity, ecosystems and related human rights with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) in all actions, including through the exercise of human rights due diligence.”
- Key human rights considerations for the negotiations to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution | OHCHR | 30 November 2022
In light of the negotiations towards a global plastics treaty, the UN Human Rights office has called for a treaty that should hold business enterprises accountable, and protect itself from conflict of interest: “The plastic industry has disproportionate power and influence over policy relative to the general public. Human rights are needed to counter-balance these powerful interests.”
Protecting Environment and Human Rights: Role of Businesses
Businesses are an integral part of society that must uphold rights and obligations while performing their functions. According to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the set of rights businesses are supposed to respect are those contained in the International Bill on Human Rights and those set out in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
“Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”
— Guiding Principles on Human Right and Businesses, 2012 UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
Human rights, businesses, and environment are connected by the environmental nature of some human rights, which have been progressively more recognized and protected in the last years. Respecting environmental human rights is key to address environmental challenges in a just and equitable manner. These are also connected because businesses and transnational corporations often clash with local populations or environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) who oppose to their extraction of natural resources or construction activities.
UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
Developed by the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie, the Guiding Principles (or UNGPs) were recognized by the Human Rights Council during its 17th session in 2011 (A/HRC/RES/17/4).
The Guiding Principles outline steps for States to ensure and foster business respect for human rights; provide a blueprint for companies to respect human rights; and offer a set of benchmarks for stakeholders to assess business respect for human rights. It comprises of 31 principles, which build upon the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework. The protection of human rights rests upon:
- the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses;
- the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and
- greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.
These principles rest on three core elements:
- A policy commitment to respect human rights, approved by senior management, which covers all business operations.
- A human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how business address their adverse human rights impacts.
- Processes to enable the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts they cause or to which they contribute
While the Guiding Principles do not directly refer to the environment, they nonetheless imply its protection due to the environmental nature of certain human rights. A list of such environmental rights have been noted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). These can be used as backdrop against which actors and stakeholders can assess the human rights impacts of businesses.
ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
The Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work bind all ILO Member States to respect and promote these principles and rights, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions. Adopted in 1998 and amended in 2022, these include the rights to:
- freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
- the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
- the effective abolition of child labor;
- the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and
- the right to a safe and healthy working environment.
The fifth principle, which has already been highlighted in the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), the only ILO instrument that provides direct guidance to enterprises on social policy and inclusive, responsible and sustainable workplace practices, was included in an amendment of the Principles at the 110th International Labour Conference in 2022. This addition is expected to enter into force in December 2024.
Unions are now campaigning to increase the number of countries ratifying and implementing all ILO health and safety conventions, giving workers the right to consultation over risk assessments, eradication of toxic chemicals and toxic work organization, as well as free protective equipment and training and the right to refuse dangerous work.
Changing Contexts: Stocktaking UNGPs and the Road Ahead
The interconnected nature between human rights and the environment have been growing in recognition in the international human rights framework over the past years. This has particularly been highlighted in the stocktaking of the Guiding Principles 10 years after. Due to the changing contexts, the need for businesses to respect the environment and human rights has also been increasingly seen as key to uphold such principles.
Stocktaking of the UN Guiding Principles
On 16 June 2021, the UN Human Rights Council marked the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles. Their unanimous endorsement by the Council was a landmark moment for efforts to promote corporate respect for human rights and sustainable business, showing significant progress towards promoting respect for human rights in a business context.
The 10th anniversary was also an opportunity for the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (or Working Group on Business and Human Rights) to take stock of UNGPs implementation 10 years after and chart a course for action in the decade ahead. The report was presented during the 47th session of the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/47/39, also available in reader-friendly version).
Following the outcomes of the stocktaking, the Working Group launched the UNGPs 10+ roadmap for the next decade, charting a course for action with forward-looking recommendations in the decade.
UNGPs and the Environment: Making clearer links
The 10th anniversary is a reminder of the challenges that still lie ahead. The Guiding Principles provide the authoritative framework and a key opportunity for States and businesses to not revert to business as usual, but to forge a better normal that prioritizes respect for people and the environment.
— Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights at 10
The stocktaking of the Guiding Principles comes at a time of changes in context, as new global challenges have emerged since its publishing. Both the outcomes of the stocktaking and the roadmap ahead have made clear links between protecting the environment and protecting human rights, particularly in the face of the dual crisis of climate change and growing inequality.
Strengthening protection of human rights defenders has also been noted as a key priority for the next decade of the business and human rights agenda. Moreover, with the recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment both at the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, the UNGPs can serve as a compass for businesses to respect such a right. The following themes makes clearer the links between UNGPs and the environment.
Climate Change and UNGPs
Climate change impacts the enjoyment and/or realization of all human rights, though the impact may be felt differently and disproportionately by different individuals and groups.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) do not address climate change explicitly. Nevertheless, the UNGPs are relevant to climate mitigation efforts on the part of States, businesses and other stakeholders. For example, as part of their Pillar I duty under the UNGPs, States would be expected to take a range of effective measures to protect against business-related climate change within their territory and/or jurisdiction.
Similarly, business enterprises may not be able to discharge their responsibility to respect all internationally recognized human rights unless they integrate climate change considerations into their human rights due diligence processes. Diverse judicial and non-judicial mechanisms are also being used to seek remedies against both States and businesses for causing, contributing to, or failing to prevent climate change.
The uptake of the Guiding Principles in the climate change arena, including in the context of the Paris Agreement, show how the UNGPs go beyond the realm of human rights.
As highlighted by the stocktake, the Just Transition declaration, adopted by some States at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), recognizes that respect for human rights across global supply chains, implemented through corporate due diligence in line with the UNGPs, the OECD Guidelines and the ILO Tripartite Declaration, is needed to realize a just transition (the process towards an environmentally sustainable economy, which “needs to be well managed and contribute to the goals of decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty”).
Building on its work on UNGPs and climate change, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights developed Key Messages on Human Rights, Climate Change and Business on what all three pillars of the UNGPs entail for States and business enterprises in relation to climate change.
Environmental Human Rights Defenders and UNGPs
The work of human rights defenders in the field of business and human rights is crucial to protecting the land and the environment, securing just and safe conditions of work, combatting corruption, respecting indigenous cultures and rights and achieving sustainable development.
There has been growing recognition as well of how environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) who oppose business activities in the name of the environment often become targets of violence. Such violations are frequently not addressed and benefit from impunity, as highlighted by the former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, in his report to the UN General Assembly on the situation of EHRDs in 2016 (A/71/281).
As part of the Stocktaking of the UNGPs 10 years after, the Working Group highlighted the risks environmental human rights defenders face in the context of business and human rights. The Working Group’s Guidance on ensuring respect for human rights defenders (A/HRC/47/39/Add.2) lists the different forms of risks: threats, smears, slurs, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), criminalization of the lawful activities, attacks, and even death. The Working Group also noted how these were heightened by the ever-increasing challenges to protest and unite, and further enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the links between business, human rights and the environment increase, the need to protect those who protect our environmental rights also becomes more urgent. → More on environmental human rights defenders
Right to Healthy Environment and UNGPs
The outcome of the stocktaking highlights how the Human Rights Council’s recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is but the latest global articulation of how climate change, the environment and human well-being are inextricably linked.
Both the recognitions by the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly also recall the UNGPs, underscoring the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights. It also calls upon businesses to contribute in scaling up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
Such a recognition shows how the right to a healthy environment can provide “a clear direction of travel towards integration of human rights and the environment,” and how it can give “a clear signal of the global interest in strengthening legal obligations of duty bearers, including states and businesses, to prevent and mitigate environmental harm.”
Biodiversity Loss and UNGPs
The fulfillment and realization of human rights is also dependent on thriving biodiversity as well as healthy habitats and ecosystems. Conversely, biodiversity and habitat loss can result in violations of these and other human rights.
Although not explicitly referred to in the UNGPs and its stocktaking, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have developed Key Messages on Human Rights and Biodiversity that outline key human rights obligations and responsibilities of biodiversity-related agreements, policies, strategies and actions, including those of businesses.
As business enterprises have the responsibility to respect human rights, business should also prevent and protect from business-related human rights harms caused by biodiversity loss.
To meet their responsibility to respect human rights, businesses are expected:
- to adopt a policy commitment to respect human rights;
- to conduct human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address human rights harms resulting from biodiversity loss, including by engaging with affected communities; and
- to have processes in place to enable the remediation of those harms they cause or to which they contribute.
These efforts should be gender-responsive, as reflected in the Working Group on Business and Human Rights’ Gender Guidance on the UNGPs.
States are obligated under international law to protect against human rights abuses by businesses. They should require assessment of all social, environmental and human rights impacts of proposed projects that may affect biodiversity. When business-related human rights abuses occur (including abuses resulting from biodiversity and habitat loss), States must hold businesses accountable and ensure that those affected have access to effective remedy.
Hazardous Substances and UNGPs
The complete lifecycle of hazardous substances (including all toxics and wastes that have adverse effects on human health and on the environment), starting from their manufacturing and transport, to use, to trade, and eventually disposal, can have an enormous impact on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.
Although not explicitly referred to in the UNGPs and its stocktaking, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have developed Key Messages on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances that highlight the human rights obligations and responsibilities of States and other duty-bearers, such as businesses, to prevent and remedy the harmful effects of hazardous substances.
As business enterprises have the responsibility to respect human rights, business should also prevent and protect from human rights harms by preventing exposure to hazardous substances caused by business activities. States, on the other hand, must take appropriate steps to prevent all business-related human rights harms including those related to hazardous substances and, where such harms do occur, to ensure access to effective remedies including through judicial processes.
Businesses have an independent responsibility to respect human rights. Through policy commitments and human rights due diligence, businesses should identify and prevent any negative human rights impacts stemming from their use of hazardous substances. Where human rights harms occur due to the use of hazardous substances (such as harms relating to the health of people or planet), businesses must address the human rights harms with which they are involved throughout their entire supply chains.
Businesses should establish or participate in effective operational-level grievance mechanisms that can remediate concerns relating to hazardous and are accessible to affected persons. The polluter pays principle, as outlined in Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration, should be applied. Further, corporate disclosure and reporting should include information about corporate lobbying related to hazardous substances. Businesses should refrain from supporting public information campaigns based on inaccurate, misleading and unfounded assertions which harm the ability of States and the public to make informed decisions.
A human rights-based approach that emphasizes the respective duties and responsibilities of States and businesses to prevent and minimize exposure to hazardous substances is needed to ensure sustainable development and the realization of human rights for all everywhere.
Business and the Environment @ Human Rights Council
The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. The UN Human Rights Council meets at the UN Office at Geneva.
The links between business, human rights and the environment have also been increasing in the UN Human Rights Council. The following section provides an overview of the work and activities by the Council that draw on such links.
OHCHR Working Group on Business and Human Rights
The Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (Working Group on Business and Human Rights) was established by the Human Rights Council in 2011 by resolution 17/4. The Working Group is tasked with implementing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights through an experiences and lessons-learned approach.
Producing thematic and country reports, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights recognizes the adverse environmental impacts of business as they usually seek access to natural resources and land, and restrict the rights of communities to benefit from these.
It also recognizes the role businesses can play in addressing climate change, and in the protection of environmental human rights defenders.
UN Forum on Business and Human Rights
The UN Forum is the world’s largest annual gathering on business and human rights with participants from government, business, community groups and civil society, law firms, investor organisations, UN bodies, national human rights institutions, trade unions, academia and the media.
Over three days, participants take part in panel discussions on topics that relate to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework), as well as current business-related human rights issues, including those related to the environment.
2022 Theme: Rights Holders at the Centre
With the theme, “Rights Holders at the Centre: Strengthening Accountability to Advance Business Respect for People and Planet in the Next Decade”, the 11th Forum will take place from 28 to 30 November 2022 at Palais des Nations and online. Following the stocktaking of the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles at the 10th Forum, this year’s focus will be on taking stock of efforts at securing accountability and access to remedy, to focus on how the implementation of the UNGPs can be accelerated from a rights holder perspectives, putting people and the planet at the heart of solutions.
The Road to an International Legally Binding Instrument
Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights
At its 26th session, on 26 June 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/9 by which it decided “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group (IGWG) on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”
The open-ended intergovernmental working group (OEIGWG) has had seven sessions so far. The eighth session of the OEIGWG took place from 24 to 28 October 2022. → Read the summary of the negotiations by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
The negotiations are now on its third revised draft of the legally binding instrument, published during the seventh session, and which served as the basis for negotiations during the session. Though references to the environment were present in previous versions, the latest version makes clear references to both climate change and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. In particular:
- Definitions (Article 1): “Human rights abuse” is any direct or indirect harm in the context of business activities, through acts or omissions, against any person or group of persons, that impedes the full enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (Art. 1.2.).
- Protection (Article 6): Human rights due diligence undertaken by enterprises must now include human rights, labour rights, environmental and climate change impact assessments (Art.6.4).
Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence Legislation
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, published a policy brief that contains a set of recommended elements for human rights and environmental due diligence laws.
The independent expert highlighted how activities such as rampant deforestation, chemical and plastic production, fossil fuel exploitation and other large-scale extractive activities by businesses routinely jeopardize the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and only propels the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity and pollution.
Overlapping human rights and environmental abuses by business actors are rampant, while effective remedies for rightsholders remain elusive.
— David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
Responding to the various legislative opportunities being developed — such as the European Commission’s Proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence and the IGWG’s “Legally Binding Instrument to Regulate, in International Human Rights Law, the Activities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises” — the brief articulates a set of overarching goals and 10 essential legislative elements to advance and standardize corporate accountability. → Read the press release
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Special Rapporteurs, or mandate-holders of special procedures, are non-paid and elected for 3-year mandates that can be renewed for another term. They help advance human rights, focusing on different themes, some of which are related to the environment.
Various Special Rapporteurs who deal with environment-related issues, have tackled the issue of business and human rights by integrating these in their annual reports to the Council and to the General Assembly.
Role of International Geneva
Center for International Environmental Law
CIEL is committed to strengthening and using international law and institutions to protect the environment, promote human health, and ensure a just and sustainable society. Working on the intersection between human rights and corporations, and engaged on the international legally binding instrument, CIEL develops new and more effective tools for holding corporations accountable for the impacts of their operations abroad aim to have a large and lasting impact for civil society as a whole, in countries around the world.
Franciscans International is an international non-governmental human rights organization, established in 1989, in General Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and seeks to promote and protect human rights and environmental justice by working to translate grassroots voices in human rights advocacy action at the UN level.
Franciscans International has been actively involved since the beginning of this process, and has built its inputs on the work and concerns of Franciscans at the grassroots. In particular, these concerns have centered on extractive industries and their impacts on communities and the environment. FI and its civil society allies within the “Treaty Alliance” have therefore been working to urge States to engage constructively in the process as well as to improve the text so that the future treaty can address the major obstacles to access to justice for victims of human rights abuses by businesses.
Geneva Centre for Business and Human Rights
The GCBHR is part of the Geneva School of Economics and Management at the University of Geneva. It was founded in 2019 under the auspices of educating future business leaders and supporting companies in upholding human rights principles in their jobs. Among its thematic focuses, GCBHR addresses human rights in extractive activities and in agriculture. Through research and publication, GCBHR provides companies and relevant actors in guidance for adopting a rights-based approach in the work.
International Labour Organization
The Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) is the only ILO instrument that provides direct guidance to governments, social partners and enterprises (multinational and national) on labour-related human rights in the broader context of decent work, inclusive economic growth and sustainable development. This includes achieving a safe and healthy working environment.
International Organisation of Employers
IOE is the sole representative of business in social and employment policy debates taking place in the ILO, across the UN, G20 and other emerging forums. It attaches great importance to business and human rights and is actively engaged in endorsing, promoting and disseminating among our members and networks the UNGPs, among other instruments, as underlined in the Bahrain Declaration, signed in October 2015. In 2021, they published a report on Climate Change and the Human Rights Implications for Business.
International Trade Union Confederation
ITUC’s primary mission is the promotion and defense of workers’ rights and interests, through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions. ITUC is engaged in the process of the IGWG on the international legally binding instrument on business and human rights, to ensure the rights of workers and trade unions are protected. They have also published “A Trade Union Guide to the UN Framework on Business and Human Rights and the UN Guiding Principles”. explains what they are about and why they are important for trade unionists.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights and represent the world’s commitment to the promotion and protection of the full range of human rights and freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. OHCHR is home for secretariats of international human rights treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Council. The OHCHR leads the business and human rights agenda within UN system.
UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative
UNEP FI works with members and partners to embed social and human rights into mainstream finance. They help financial institutions align policies and practices with the UNGPs by implementing due diligence to identify, avoid, mitigate, and remediate human rights impacts in their activities and portfolio. UNEP FI has produced a Human Rights Tool and other resources providing guidance for finance practitioners on human rights impact management.
UN Human Rights Council
The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year, including those in relation to environment, business and human rights. The UN Human Rights Council meets at the UN Office at Geneva.
World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
WBCSD is community of more than 200 sustainable businesses globally engaged to achieve a net-zero, nature positive, and more equitable future. UNGPs are an integral part of WBCSD approach, encouraging members to uphold those principles in all activities. WBCSD has produced a CEO- Guide to Human Rights as has launched a Call to Action for Business Leadership on Human Rights. This invites business leaders to go beyond the “do no harm” principle and deliver positive development through active human rights fostering. On top of these, WBCSD also conducts human rights project.
- Key Messages: Human Rights and the Environment | UNEP & OHCHR
- What companies need to know about the new human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment | Catie Shavin | Global Business Initiative | 4 August 2022
- Human rights and environmental due diligence laws crucial to combat irresponsible business activities – UN expert | 4 July 2022
- Essential elements of effective and equitable human rights and environmental due diligence legislation | A policy brief by David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and Stephanie Keene, Independent Consultant, International Human Rights Lawyer | June 202
- The Right to a Healthy Environment: What now for business? | SwedWatch | 30 May 2022
- The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: An Introduction (Video) | Mike Baab | 14 January 2015