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Business and human rights

Business enterprises have an undeniable role to play in the implementation of and respect for human rights as a result of the special place this non-State actor holds in society. Certain business enterprises report revenues comparable to the GDP of a small State and/or exert considerable influence, especially in countries with fragile State institutions.

The role and the transnational nature of many large business enterprises justify the introduction of international standards of respect for human rights that target them directly and specifically. The number of such standards has grown in recent years, a sign that the importance of business’s role in this field is gaining recognition.

The common ground in all these standards is their affirmation that business must respect the human rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the two International Covenants, and also in specific Conventions adopted by the United Nations and other international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation or the Council of Europe, once these have been ratified by a significant number of States. Most of these international instruments are non-binding, but States rely on them, using the various means at their disposal, to ensure that business enterprises comply with them as they would with any binding obligations.

France is working actively to improve and implement this body of human rights standards in an international context in which the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has recently been redefined. CSR is no longer confined to the way in which businesses incorporate sustainable development goals into their business practices and take on board the expectations of their stakeholders; it now requires businesses also to evaluate and manage their impacts on society.

In 2008, France appointed an Ambassador on Bio-ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility to represent its position in the many negotiations dealing with this vast subject.

In recent years, a number of major international instruments have been adopted that set out in detail the scope and extent of Corporate Social Responsibility: the United Nations Global Compact, the revised OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (and their verification mechanism, the National Contact Points), the International Finance Corporation’s revised performance standards (determining eligibility for subsidised loans), ISO 26000 standard, etc. In addition to a series of provisions relating to the environment, social issues and questions of governance, all of these standards also include provisions on respect for human rights.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights under resolution 17/4 of the Human Rights Council on 16 June 2011 was a groundbreaking event, complementing and extending the scope of CSR, hitherto confined to environmental, social and corporate governance issues, to include human rights, and establishing the UN and ILO international conventions on fundamental human rights as the global standard of practice.

The Guiding Principles implement a framework of reference developed in 2008 by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, appointed by the Human Rights Council in June 2005. They "recognise the role of business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions, required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights" whilst emphasising the State’s duty to protect human rights and to provide access to remedy.

The Guiding Principles are grounded on three concepts:

-  States have a duty to respect human rights by implementing international treaties of universal application using all the public resources available, including legal and judicial means.
-  Business enterprises must respect human rights, i.e. essentially must refrain from breaking national and international law, either directly or through failure to monitor their chain of suppliers.
-  States and business enterprises must ensure that the victims of any breaches of human rights have easy access to fair remedy.

All existing fundamental international standards have thus been integrated into a single model with global scope. A mechanism for monitoring implementation of the Guiding Principles has been set up: a committee of five independent experts representing each of the five continents is responsible for monitoring implementation of the Guiding Principles and providing interpretations to remove or reduce any uncertainties arising from them, in particular as regards a business enterprise’s responsibility for its supply chain, the extent of the concept of "due diligence", the dividing line between the mandatory and the optional, etc.

Standards governing the activities of private military and security companies

France is actively involved in international initiatives seeking to regulate the growing activities of private military and security companies (PMSCs): these are private companies providing military services in the field of security and defence to governments, international organisations, NGOs or private business enterprises, often in areas of high security risks.

France is one of the 40 States that in 2008 adopted the Montreux Document, which set out to establish a framework for the use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) by States by setting out the pertinent legal obligations regarding the use of such companies during armed conflict, whether these obligations arise from international humanitarian law or human rights law. The document notes the existence and activities of PMSCs without endorsing their legitimacy or encouraging their development. While not legally binding, the document places responsibility for regulating the activities of PMSCs in the hands of the States concerned. France supports and promotes the universalisation of the Montreux Document and its comprehensive implementation.

Updated on : 01.03.13

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All rights reserved - French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development - 2014