Business and Human Rights: Essential For A Better Future

June 24, 2021

The UNDP, through the initiative "En Marcha" accompanies entrepreneurs affected by the pandemic to reactivate and recover their businesses. Photo: UNDP Peru.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis of governance in Latin America and the Caribbean have reminded us of a truism: to achieve different results, we need to act differently. This is particularly true if we want to harness the potential of the private sector to create new decent jobs, reduce poverty, generate wealth and contribute to the development. The pandemic was and still is a disaster for many businesses. Yet, it could also be a momentum to reshape public-private partnerships and to encourage companies to act respecting human rights, to march along towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

Not just business 

The concept that the business of business is not only business is not new. The idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goes back to the mid 20th century, evolving since then as a model of business self-regulation with the aim of being socially accountable and as a means of boosting their image. Nonetheless, the CSR framework was still inadequate in defining the obligations of businesses to their employees, communities where they operate and the environment.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) which encouraged the private sector to respect internationally recognized human rights and empowered the state to protect its citizens from human rights violations by businesses. In practice, this means that businesses are expected to go beyond the ‘do no harm’ principle and undertake actions to respect human rights. 

A key concept introduced by the UNGPs for reimagining the new role of companies is “due diligence”, which implies that companies should (a) identify and assess the adverse human rights impacts of their activities; (b) integrate the findings of impact assessments into their processes; (c) monitor the effectiveness of measures taken, and (d) communicate how they are responding to adverse impacts and demonstrating that appropriate policies and processes are taken in place to respect human rights.

Partnership in action 

Naturally, trying to catch the low tides of the pandemic waves, the private sector has been desperate to regain profit and compensate for the losses. To support business in its efforts to recover and to ensure that this process goes in line with the human rights principles, UNDP developed a simple tool. A document Human Rights Due Diligence and COVID-19: A Rapid Self-Assessment for Business presents the list of potential actions that “allows for rapid but continuous reflection on the human rights risks and impacts common to many industries”. Notably, this tool became very popular among companies in Asia, where it was first launched, and subsequently in the rest of the world. It has been translated in 11 languages and downloaded 7,800+ times from UNDP’s website only.  

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have good examples of innovative and effective solutions to the challenges of sustainable development. In Peru, where over 2 million jobs were lost in micro and small enterprises, UNDP launched a programme that accompany microentrepreneurs affected by the pandemic to reactivate and recover their businesses. In Dominican Republic, we promote employment and other opportunities for people with disabilities, and in Argentina, UNDP supported a young local company in developing a prototype of a respirator to help patients infected with COVID-19. Building on such emerging good practices and developing policies backed by evidence should be the way to face the ‘new normal’ brought about by the pandemic. 

The way forward: inclusion and innovation  

UNDP’s experience has shown that the more inclusive the discourse on responsible business, the likelier it is that companies will take steps to respect human rights and to act in a sustainable manner. Thus, the process of economic recovery from COVID-19 should ensure meaningful participation and engagement from employees and communities, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society organisations and human rights defenders. We must also prioritize a commitment to innovation that aligns the interests of entrepreneurs and private shareholders with sustainable development. This will help establish development and the pursuit of the SDGs as a pivotal and non-negotiable axis of their business models.

At UNDP we are committed to develop the capacities of those involved in this process, whether at state level, within the civil society or in partnership with the private sector. Our organization will continue acting as a positive force in this unprecedented scenario, encouraging nations and companies to act differently and to do so together.