What are human rights and responsible business conduct?

“Business and Human Rights” and “Responsible Business Conduct” are broad terms describing the global standard of expected conduct that all companies -- regardless of their size, sector, location, ownership and structure -- should fully understand. Each business must assess how they impact people, the planet and prosperity and how to address any harms in which they may be involved

Often these expectations are set, as a baseline, through national laws and policies on issues such as human and labour rights, industrial relations, environmental protection and anti-bribery. However, companies are also expected to act responsibly over and above compliance with national laws and regulations, especially where such laws do not exist or are poorly enforced. Thus, the notion of responsible business conduct is further set out in internationally-recognised standards such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (and its subsequent Due Diligence Guidance), and the ILO MNE Declaration. It is also echoed in other standards, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards, the 10 UN Global Compact Principles, various Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards, and ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility.

Why are human rights and responsible business conduct relevant for business?

Acting responsibly is regarded as the best way for a business to gain and retain a social license to operate and to make a positive contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other benefits include business opportunities, such as: enhanced reputation and trust; helping to attract and retain the best staff; strengthened business relationships; access to new markets; attracting access to capital; lower insurance premiums; and the potential to develop new and innovative products and services.

Furthermore, failing to act responsibly can create significant costs to business, which are often not aggregated, such as delays to operations caused by strikes or protests; lost productivity; lost staff time in managing human rights-related disputes; costs involved in potential litigation; reputational harm and lost business opportunities.

What is the IOE’s position on human rights and responsible business conduct?

The IOE attaches great importance to business and human rights and is actively engaged in endorsing, promoting and disseminating among our members and networks the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), as well as other government-backed instruments on responsible business conduct. We help businesses of all sizes to meet their responsibility to respect human rights in line with the UNGPs and to make a positive contribution to the SDGs. Respecting and advancing human rights is a priority for the international business community and the IOE strongly argues for preserving the approach outlined by the UNGPs.

The IOE's commitment to advance business and human rights and responsible business conduct is underlined in the Bahrain Declaration, signed in October 2015, which reinforces business support for and commitment to: (a) contributing to the SDGs; (b) engaging with trade unions and all other stakeholders to contribute to more and better jobs, growth and prosperity; and (c) the UNGPs and the ILO MNE Declaration, as a means to guide businesses in their respect for human rights throughout their operations.

How does the IOE’s work on human rights and responsible business conduct advance the agenda for business?

The IOE is at the forefront of international human rights policymaking and carries out its own activities on human rights and responsible business conduct. Our engagement and advocacy cover many topics and initiatives, including:

  • United Nations: UN Treaty process, UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights, UN Forum on Business & Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) project on Accountability and Remedy, and other ad hoc UN activities. 
  • ILO: Global Supply Chains, Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, MNE Declaration, Social Dialogue, etc.
  • Other initiatives/organisations: UN Global Compact, GRI, ISO, OECD, B20, Benchmarks/ranks, Mega sporting events, Bali Process, etc.

The IOE provides a vital business perspective to the many activities and initiatives that seek to advance the Business and Human Rights and Responsible Business Conduct agenda. We advocate on behalf of business for reasonable, realistic and workable solutions to the world's myriad human rights-related challenges.

Our active engagement on this topic ensures that the development and dissemination of global standards includes the perspective of and realities facing business. We also work to ensure policy coherence between various international organisations and we help companies to understand what they need to do to meet the evolving standards of conduct.