The struggle to introduce human rights respect into business’ strategies: a historical perspective

Between October 23rd and October 27th, it took place in Geneva, Switzerland, the third session of the ‘Open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights’. On the occasion of being held such event, this report addresses the historical struggle to establish the respect for human rights within the global business’ strategy.

Early attempts to provide multinational companies with responsibilities for human rights date back to 1974, when the UN General Assembly created both the Commission and the Information and Research Centre on Transnational Corporations. The Commission formed by forty-eight UN members had the mandate to define the term “transnational corporations” and a code of conduct for transnational corporations. As a result, it was created a Draft Code of Conduct in 1983. It contained duties for transnational corporations in host countries such as the respect of fundamental rights and their development goals, together with the protection of consumers and the environment. Unfortunately, the document was never officially approved. This first attempt will be followed by decades of lack of agreements between the parties involved: civil society, business associations and government institutions.

The second attempt happened in 2003. The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights presented to the Commission on Human Rights – the institution that today is the Human Rights Council- a document proposing a set of human rights’ norms applicable to private actors. The ‘Norms 2003’ were born, and they made business activities subjected to international law. However, the Commission on Human Rights did not defend the proposal and it did not go forward, once again.

The non-approval of the 'Norms 2003' produced a strong division between the aforementioned parts of the debate. Hence, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Dr. John Gerard Ruggie as the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other commercial enterprises. His work ended in 2011 with the unanimous endorsement of "The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights" by the OHCHR. These principles are based on three pillars: The State duty to protect human rights; the responsibility of companies to respect them; and the joint obligation to offer remedy to victims of human rights violations. This document is considered by the international community "the route to follow" for the development of this topic.

Finally, the ultimate attempt to re-open the debate for an international binding treaty in the issue of business and human rights was the joint statement launched by Ecuador during the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. This statement requests a formal dialogue towards the development of a binding treaty regulating transnational corporations in terms of human rights. The statement was signed by more than 80 countries, and the pressure paid off in 2014 with the resolution A/HRC/RES26/9. This resolution opens the mandate to elaborate “an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights”.

The draft report of the third session states that a fourth session will be held in 2018. And it will be held after the corresponding consultations on this subject with different state and social agents.

More than 80,000 transnational corporations operate around the world. Some of them with the capacity to generate an income equal to a country’s total output. It is a challenging and precious time for institutions such as the European Union and countries like the UK and Northern Ireland, Russia and the United Arab Emirates – all of whom were participants in the session - to finally decide to hold corporations accountable when they are involved in human rights abuses.