Human rights interest

The UK is leading the way on business and human rights, but others will be following soon 

Louise Moore

The UK Government has taken the lead in Europe by being one of the first to produce a national action plan on business and human rights. 

In the past year the Government has consulted with businesses and civil society on developing an action plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The action plan was launched on 4 September and sets out a road map for government departments, businesses, industry associations and civil society to work together to promote business respect of human rights in the UK and abroad. It  puts the Government at the forefront of business and human rights, and with it UK companies.

To understand the significance of the action plan it is necessary to rewind to June 2011 when the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the guiding principles. These provide an international framework for approaching the link between businesses and human rights. They make it clear that it is the job of states to protect against human rights abuse by businesses through legislation, regulation, policies and adjudication. However, they also place responsibility on businesses to respect human rights wherever they operate. This is more than just complying with national laws. It requires companies to have in place policies, processes and mechanisms to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights risks associated with their business. This includes risks to the rights of customers, employees, supply chain workers and communities.

The reaction of EU member states to the guiding principles was to commit, in an EU action plan on human rights and democracy, to developing national plans. The UK  plan is the first and it paves the way for other EU states. The US government has also published its approach to implementing the guiding principles and the momentum in other states is gathering pace.

The UK Government is clear in its message that the plan represents a first step towards implementing the  guiding principles in the UK context. It sets out the expectation that companies should fulfil their res-ponsibility to respect human rights and that the Government is committed to working with industry associations and companies to help them with this. 

It also outlines the actions the Government has taken to give effect to the guiding principles, including incorporating human rights into public procurement and introducing a requirement to report on human rights issues in annual reports. It also sets out a work plan for future action by the Government and includes a commitment to produce an updated version of the action plan by the end of 2015.

In other words, business and human rights is firmly on the Government’s agenda and we should expect developments in the future, both in the UK and internationally.

Herbert Smith Freehills associate Johanna Hull assisted with this article