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Business and Human Rights Instruments

Last edited: July 06, 2020

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Several non-binding declarations and principles exist to promote the role of businesses in the promotion of human rights. These can potentially impact on how business conduct affects violence and harassment against women.

The Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration) is an ILO instrument adopted by Governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations in 1977 and revised in 2017. It provides guidance to multinationals and other enterprises on respecting workers’ rights and contributing more broadly to economic and social development, as well as guidance to governments on creating an enabling environment to encourage all companies to do so. It forms the framework for the ILO’s work on corporate social responsibility, containing principles derived mainly from international labour standards, and incorporates the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Enterprises are encouraged to help promote equality of opportunity and treatment in employment and occupation. The MNE Declaration stipulates that, “Governments should pursue policies designed to promote equality of opportunity and treatment in employment, with a view to eliminating any discrimination based on race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin” (ILO, 2017a, para. 28) and, should progressively achieve a safe and healthy working environment, which includes “steps to combat workplace violence against women and men and attention to building safety” (ILO, 2017a, para. 43).

The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011, provide a set of non-binding principles addressing businesses responsibility to respect human rights, including by avoiding infringing on the human rights of others and addressing adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved (UN Human Rights Council, 2011a). Such responsibility refers to internationally-recognized human rights which, under the Principles, include, at a minimum, the rights encompassed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.  Human rights due diligence is an important element of accountability in this framework, requiring business to introduce monitoring systems “to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights” (UN Human Rights Council, 2011a, para. 15(b)).

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, adopted in 1976 and updated in 2011, set out recommendations from governments to multinational enterprises (MNEs) regarding decent work, equality and collective bargaining (OECD, 2008). Companies have a due diligence responsibility to identify, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts on human rights. The Guidelines are supported by implementation procedures, where enforcement lies with the establishment of National Contact Points, which are built-in grievance mechanisms that can be used by trade unions and civil society organizations. In addition, trade unions can report directly to the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC).

The UN Global Compact[1] is a corporate sustainability initiative aimed at companies to integrate into their business practices ten universally-accepted principles covering human rights, labour, environment and anti- corruption. It is a global network involving UN agencies, companies, governments, employers’ organizations, trade unions and NGOs. Companies also commit to issue an annual Communication on Progress regarding the advancement in implementing the ten principles and in supporting broader UN development goals. Today, more than 9,000 companies from over 160 countries participate in the UN Global Compact to share experiences and engage in dialogue through its local networks and thematic working groups.

The Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) – a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact and UN Women – are global principles offering guidance to businesses on empowering women at work, including through respecting and supporting human rights and non-discrimination and ensuring the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers. More than 2,000 business leaders from companies across the world have adopted the WEPs (UN Women, 2019).   

WEPs’ Principle 3 aims to ensure the health, safety and well-being of all workers and highlights the responsibility of employers to support victims of violence and to provide a workplace that is free from violence. Suggestions include offering services to survivors of domestic violence; respecting requests for time off for counselling or medical care; training staff to recognize the signs of violence against women; identifying security issues, including the safe travel of staff to and from work; and establishing a zero-tolerance policy towards violence and harassment at work.[2]

In addition to guiding and normative instruments, the role of business in promoting human rights has also been developed through considerations of human rights due-diligence, which has implications for how companies can detect and prevent violence and harassment against women. As violence and harassment against women is often entrenched in and normalized through gender discrimination, which sometimes renders it invisible, human rights due diligence is a potential way to identify and act upon abuses.

At the national level, some governments have taken proactive roles to raise awareness of how violence and harassment can be prevented through due-diligence.[3] At the national level, some governments have taken proactive roles to raise awareness of how violence and harassment can be prevented through due-diligence.[4] Regarding action at the international level, the Human Rights Council is in the process of developing a “Legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of translational corporations and other business enterprises” (UNHRC, 2018, A/HRC/WG.16/4/1), and its Optional Protocol.[5]


[1] For recommendations on what companies can do in the workplace see: United Nations (2008) The Labour Principles of the United Nations Global Compact – A Guide for Business. ILO, Geneva. https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc

[2] See: https://weps-gapanalysis.org/glossary/#1

[3] For example, French companies are legally required to identify and prevent risks to human rights, health, safety and the environment (including sub-contractors). The Dutch government is debating the introduction of similar legislation, in addition to the existing Dutch agreements on international responsibility in business conduct. Similar commitments have been developed in Bangladesh and Germany.

[4] For example, French companies are legally required to identify and prevent risks to human rights, health, safety and the environment (including sub-contractors). The Dutch government is debating the introduction of similar legislation, in addition to the existing Dutch agreements on international responsibility in business conduct. Similar commitments have been developed in Bangladesh and Germany.

[5] The Zero Draft of a Legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of translational corporations and other business enterprises and of its Optional Protocol are available online at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/WGTransCorp/Session4/Pages/Session4.aspx

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