The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been mandated to prepare a report focusing on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and related business enterprises with regard to human rights. In particular, the report will list existing initiatives and standards, the scope and legal status of those initiatives and other issues.

Participants at a consultation held on 22 October recommended five categories of norms with relevance to business and human rights. The first two categories proposed would cover legally-based instruments and contractually-based initiatives (which are being included, for instance, in financing contracts). Voluntary initiatives could form the next group, including voluntary procedures and certification schemes. The next category could comprise mainstream financial transaction-related initiatives, such as the FTS4Good Index, which influence markets on social issues. Tools and other initiatives, notably methodologies for undertaking human rights impact assessments, would form the last group.

In terms of human rights initiatives and standards, four aspects have been highlighted: territorial coverage, reach, company coverage (eg. depending on the size) and value added (to existing obligations).

Verification remains an important outstanding issue for many stakeholders wishing to improve the accountability of businesses. Others pointed out that ‘complicity’ needs to be defined. For instance, if local laws contained loopholes in the protection of human rights, would a company be complicit if it exploited those gaps? Another issue raised was the appropriateness of international measures in cases where a business evades the jurisdiction of a State.

An NGO participant suggested a layered approach based on what business “must do”, “should do” and “could do” to protect and promote human rights.

The UN has its own initiative targeting business, the Global Compact. Out of its ten ‘principles’ two relate to human rights. One states that companies should support and respect internationally proclaimed human rights, and the other calls on businesses to make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.

Another UN body, the Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, adopted a series of recommendations on business and human rights in August 2003, entitled “Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights”. However, the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, the main UN authority in the human rights area, dismissed the Draft Norms saying that it “has not been requested by the Commission and, as a draft proposal, has no legal standing.” NGO representatives, however, have emphasised that the draft should be taken into account and that it could be seen as a good basis for a common framework.

The outcome of the consultation will be factored into the final report due for the next meeting of the Commission on Human Rights in March 2005.