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Explore the Relationship Between Human Rights and Business

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain how business activities impact human rights.
  • Identify connections between human rights and specific business activities.
  • Make the business case for respecting human rights.

This module was produced with the support of the United Nations Human Rights Office.

Businesses Reach Every Corner of the World

Today, businesses exist in every corner of the world. This means their activities, from manufacturing plants to social media platforms, are global, too. 

Business activities taking place around the world

Businesses, irrespective of how they operate, impact communities worldwide, including the human rights of individuals and groups. This impact can be beneficial, such as creating more employment or development opportunities. But it can also cause harm to people, such as negative impacts on an individual's right to privacy or a community’s right to a healthy environment. 

In this module, we explore the critical role businesses play in respecting human rights, including how businesses can use the framework of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). We deepen your understanding of the UNGPs by delving into their history and significance, and by providing an overview of the human rights due diligence (HRDD) process. And we offer some practical examples as a model for how businesses can advance human rights.  

Let’s begin with a brief overview of human rights as they relate to business activities. 

A Global Framework Connects Human Rights and Business Activities

In recent decades, we’ve seen a number of corporations scrutinized by the media or public hearings for how their activities negatively impact human rights, including negative impacts on: 

  • An individual’s right to privacy, by failing to protect users’ personal data from exploitation by third-party organizations.
  • The right to a healthy environment, by releasing chemical pollutants into the air or water.
  • Freedom from slavery or forced labor, by benefiting from workers forced into labor through tactics such as coercion or trafficking.

These examples underscore the importance of having a framework like the UNGPs in place to clarify the impact of business decisions and activities on human rights. 

Additional critical human rights instruments have informed the UNGP framework—let’s spend some time exploring these.  

The International Bill of Human Rights

Human rights are rights we have simply because we exist as human beings. These universal rights are inherent to us all, regardless of nationality, sex, color, religion, language, or any other aspect of our identity. Human rights range from the most fundamental—the right to live in freedom and dignity—to those that make life worth living, such as the rights to education, work, and health. 

Human rights were first formally recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Subsequently, the UN and other international organizations created a body of international human rights law based on the UDHR, and established the mechanisms needed to enforce its implementation and use.

In 1966, to fully develop the content of the UDHR, the UN General Assembly adopted two major treaties: 

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

Together with the UDHR, these two covenants compose what is known as the “International Bill of Rights.”

Over the years, other UN instruments, either legally binding conventions or political declarations, have complemented the International Bill of Rights. These instruments cover specific human rights issues, like freedom from racial discrimination or torture, or the rights of specific groups, such as women, children, migrants, or persons with disabilities.  


To learn more about the history and present-day significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, check out the UDHR module on Trailhead—see the link in the Resources section below. 

The Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

For more than a century now, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has developed legal standards regulating decent work and social policy. The ILO has identified eight “fundamental” Conventions, covering issues that are considered the basic principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, or the prohibition of forced labor, child labor, and discrimination. 

Guiding Benchmarks

The UNGPs establish that businesses should respect, at the very least, the rights contained in the International Bill of Rights and the ILO fundamental Conventions. Other instruments, such as those we learned about above that cover specific human rights or the rights of specific groups, may be relevant depending on the context. Human rights instruments are benchmarks against which we can assess the human rights impacts of companies. 

Let’s take a moment to learn more about the framework these international instruments give businesses to understand how their activities may impact human rights.

Human Right


How Business Activities May Impact Human Rights

Freedom from discrimination

Human rights are guaranteed for all, regardless of sex, race, language, religion, and social standing.

arrow pointing up to signify a positive impact

Elevating equality to be a core company value to underscore the commitment to all employees

arrow pointing down to signify a negative impact

Providing access to technology where individuals can antagonize and promote violence or hatred towards groups, based on their race or religion 

Freedom of religion or belief 

Individuals can practice and change their religion freely.

arrow pointing up to signify a positive impact

Granting workers leave to observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the precepts of their religion or beliefs

arrow pointing down to signify a negative impact

Preventing workers from wearing clothing or other symbols that express their faith, even though they do not interfere with their safety or performance, or not allowing them to take sufficient time off for religious holidays 

Right to participate in public affairs

All citizens can take part in their country’s political affairs, such as voting in elections.

arrow pointing up to signify a positive impact

Promoting consultations with indigenous peoples on projects affecting their traditional territories

arrow pointing down to signify a negative impactFailing to give workers time off for voting, or improper uses of company influence, such as bribery, that distort the electoral process or otherwise impede free and fair elections

Prohibition of child labor

Children have the right to be protected from sexual and economic exploitation, including hazardous work or work that affects their personal development.

arrow pointing up to signify a positive impact

Instituting company-wide labor standards that prohibit the use of child labor for all business operations 

arrow pointing down to signify a negative impact

Involving children in dangerous or unhealthy conditions—such as mining, exposure to pesticides, or heavy loads to carry—or work that interferes with schooling

Right to health

All people have the right to adequate living standards, including a clean environment.

arrow pointing up to signify a positive impact

Signing up to support important environmental initiatives, such as The Climate Pledge that asks businesses to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 

arrow pointing down to signify a negative impact

Polluting the environment or failing to implement appropriate health and safety standards, negatively impacting workers' health and the surrounding communities

As these examples illustrate, businesses can do serious harm to their communities and employees if they fail to respect fundamental human rights. This is why, above any other reason for businesses to respect human rights, it’s simply the right thing to do. In addition, there is a solid business case, which we’ll turn to next.

There Is a Solid Business Case for Respecting Human Rights

When businesses respect human rights, they demonstrate their commitment to building sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with those who influence or are impacted by their operations, including customers, communities, workers, and investors. Let’s learn more about each of these important groups. 


How They Influence or Are Impacted by Business Operations

The Business Case for Respecting Human Rights


Evolving customer expectations can motivate businesses to take responsibility for how their operations affect others.

Businesses risk losing customers and customer loyalty if they don’t keep pace with their expectations. 


Business operations can affect the livelihood of communities worldwide, for example, through environmental impacts or deprivation of land and resources.

Businesses cultivate respectful and beneficial relationships when they show respect for communities, such as by consulting with community organizations or generating employment opportunities through development.


Business operations and decisions impact workers through their day-to-day working conditions and relationships with other employees and management. 

Businesses that take steps to improve working conditions can effectively boost employee satisfaction and overall productivity, which leads to more collective success. 


Investors rely on comprehensive company data to steer their investment decisions, which can fluctuate if a business is responsible for or associated with negative human rights impacts.

Businesses may compromise investor interests if they’re associated with or connected to negative human rights impacts, which increase their overall risk profile.

Watch the video below to explore more about why human rights matter to businesses, including how businesses can create more positive impacts for their workers and the community. Note: The video, created by the Forum for Sustainable Development of German Business, focuses on one issue, supply chain, to highlight the need for awareness about human rights.

To sum it up, “doing well by doing good” is possible. When businesses commit to respecting human rights, it’s possible for everyone to benefit, as well as the bottom line.

Next, we explore more about the duties and responsibilities of businesses in upholding the UNGPs.


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