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General human rights

Business and human rights

A young boy works as a labourer near Kathmandu.

Human rights govern first and foremost the relationship between the state and its citizens. However, certain human rights also govern areas of working life. The In­ter­national Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for instance, prohibits forced labour, and prescribes the freedom of association, which includes the right to form and join trade unions. Pursuant to the In­ter­national Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, everyone has the right to fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. States are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the rights to ownership, freedom of occupation and decent working conditions.

In addition to the basic rights laid down in the in­ter­national human rights treaties, the labour standards of the In­ter­national Labour Organization (ILO) set universal minimum standards for decent work. The core labour standards of the ILO, which apply regardless of a coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment status, encompass the four areas of freedom of association, and the elimination of discrimination, the worst forms of child labour and forced labour. In the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, all 184 ILO member states pledged to respect these areas laid down in eight ILO core labour standards, even if they had not yet ratified one of the in­ter­national conventions.

The influence of business enterprises

Besides state bodies, business enterprises also wield considerable influence over the realisation of human rights worldwide. Unlike states, which are bound by in­ter­national law, businesses are not bearers of direct obligations for human rights, although they are bound by the national laws that apply to them. However, many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries do not possess adequate legislation or the institutions required to regulate and monitor private sector activity appropriately. As a result, the regulation of global enterprises and multinational companies in particular leaves much to be desired in some cases.

To close these gaps, in June 2011 the Un Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Three guiding principles were formulated under the heading "Protect, Respect, Remedy":

  • The state duty to protect human rights
  • The corporate re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to respect human rights
  • Access to remedy (persons whose human rights have been breached by enterprises must have access to appropriate and effective remedy).

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for the first time provide an in­ter­national frame of reference, and one which has already been incorporated into the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises as updated in 2011. The European Commission has called on all member states of the European Union to draw up national action plans to operationalise the UN Guiding Principles. At the UN level, operationalisation and further concretisation is being supported by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

Specific measures

Promoting responsible corporate governance is an im­por­tant element of German de­vel­op­ment policy. The BMZ's strategy paper on human rights and the cross-cutting paper "Minds for change – Enhancing opportunities" state that, where there is a risk of human rights violations, the German gov­ern­ment attaches higher priority to values than economic interests.

To implement human rights in the business sector worldwide, the BMZ involves all stakeholders: governments, enterprises, trade unions, civil society and academia.

For instance, partner coun­try governments are advised on how they might better align their economic and social policies with human rights and social standards, and create corresponding frameworks for responsible corporate governance.

In co­op­er­a­tion with the private sector the BMZ is de­vel­op­ing methods and procedures for corporate fulfilment of re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for human rights. One aim is to make voluntary commitments more widespread. Programmes for private sector de­vel­op­ment and co­op­er­a­tion with the private sector must also undergo the human rights impact and risk assessment that the BMZ has introduced to review all measures of bilateral official de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion.

Through financial cooperation and its involvement in multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the regional de­vel­op­ment banks, the BMZ works to help ensure that environmental and social standards are complied with and continuously developed. Increasingly, these standards also reflect minimum human rights standards.

Moreover, the BMZ promotes dialogue between the state, management and labour on topics such as vocational training, occupational safety and minimum wages. The work of trade unions is supported. Judicial and out-of-court complaint mechanisms for victims of human rights violations by enterprises are being established and consolidated.

Research projects

To identify practical de­vel­op­ment policy approaches to strengthening corporate re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for human rights, the BMZ has commissioned the Institute for De­vel­op­ment and Peace (INEF) to conduct a flagship research project on "Human rights, corporate re­spon­si­bil­i­ty and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment".

A BMZ-funded research project at the German Institute for Human Rights is also supporting national human rights organisations in partner coun­tries in sharpening their focus on tasks in the field of human rights and business.

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