07. October 2019

Streamlining human rights and anti-corruption compliance

Man carrying bricks on his head

Child labour. Forced evictions. Confiscation of migrant-worker identity documents. Crackdowns by security forces on peaceful assemblies. Serious illness resulting from corporate pollution.

These are all examples of human rights abuses that might arise in business operations or supply chains, knowingly or unknowingly, in a company’s home country or abroad.

What are human rights and who is obliged to respect them?

Human rights are the universal rights and freedoms inherent to all individuals established through a range of international treaties. States have the primary duty to respect human rights and prevent human rights abuses on their territories.

Yet businesses also have a corporate responsibility to respect internationally recognised human rights. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Human Rights set out the respective roles of States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. Since the Guidelines were endorsed in 2011, society’s expectations that businesses are held to account for their role in respecting human rights have risen.

Human rights in corporate compliance

Human rights are progressively entering the compliance sphere. Many (if not all) international human rights have corresponding civil or criminal infractions under national laws, though traditionally there has been an enforcement gap. An increasing awareness of human rights has contributed to a rise in efforts to enforce them at the national level.

Additional human-rights specific legislation and standards pertaining to businesses are being adopted at the national and multilateral levels. For example:

  • The United Kingdom and the Netherlands require certain companies to conduct due diligence, take other preventive measures, and report on their efforts to ensure there is no slavery, trafficking, or child labour in their supply chain.
  • The EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive, which came into effect in 2018, places a requirement on large companies to disclose the human rights impacts of their business operations and efforts to mitigate them.

Integrating human rights into anti-corruption compliance?

Countries in which human rights abuses regularly occur often present high risks of corruption, and corruption can itself be a cause of human rights abuses. Companies can therefore integrate human rights issues into their compliance system by applying their existing anti-corruption mechanisms, such as risk assessments.

Such an approach has the potential to enhance both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the company's overall efforts to do business with integrity.

An adapted version of this article appeared in German in the September 2019 edition of Recht relevant – für Compliance Officers, published by Schulthess.

Photo by Safal Karki on  Unsplash