Business, Human Rights, and the G7: A First Step

Last week, at the G7 Summit, leaders of some of the world's largest economies pledged support for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). This is an important and welcome step toward the state protection of human rights, but it's just the beginning.

Since the launch of the UNGPs four years ago, I have worked with leading companies to identify and address human rights risks in their operations, products and services. In many cases, companies were able address risks and align with the UNGPs simply by changing their own policies and processes.

In other cases, company efforts to gain alignment with the UNGPs were hindered by state failures to implement and enforce human rights protections. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where cultural norms and legally enforced discrimination continue to prevent women from being recognized as equal citizens, companies struggled to find opportunities to promote and employ women despite commitments to champion equality. In other cases, lack of government oversight on counterfeit products left companies unable to ensure the safety of consumers.

Cases like these illustrate just how interconnected the state's duty to protect its citizens from corporate human rights infringements and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights really are. While companies can and should do much more to ensure their operations do not infringe on human rights, they are right to call on governments to do their part as well.

The statement from the G7 was thus reassuring. Their calls for greater due diligence by companies, for the creation of National Action Plans, and for the strengthening of multi-stakeholder initiatives to promote greater corporate respect for human rights are important and necessary.

However, by focusing their comments on responsible supply chain management, the G7's statement was incomplete in at least two important ways:

  1. It failed to recognize the role that members of the G7 play in ensuring companies operating within their territories are able to respect human rights. The broad government surveillance taking place in the US, for example, forced many technology companies to comply with government requests at the expense of protecting their users' human right to privacy.
  2. It failed to highlight the plethora of internal challenges companies face when working to respect human rights - from ensuring equal representation of women in senior leadership to the health and safety of their own workforce - and the importance of focusing due diligence efforts not only on supplier practices but also on their direct impacts.

The G7 countries should now take meaningful steps to follow through and expand their commitments so there are clear expectations for business and protections for human rights. Companies should capture the momentum from the G7 Summit and continue to push for government action in support of corporate respect for human rights. The vision of the UNGPs will be realized only when states and businesses are aligned in support of human rights.