Skip to main content

Get to Know the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Learning Objectives:

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

  • Describe the history and importance of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
  • List the three pillars of the UNGPs.
  • Identify the responsibilities of businesses as defined by the UNGPs.

The Guiding Principles Provide a Common Language

Today, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) serve as a common language and framework for speaking about States’ and businesses’ roles worldwide regarding the impacts on people and communities resulting from business activities. But how exactly did the UNGPs become such a foundational framework? Let’s learn more about the history and significance of the UNGPs.


A point of clarification for those of you living in the United States who may be reading this in a state such as California, New York, or Indiana: When you see "State" in this module, think "country."

Extensive Research and Consultations 

In 2005, the UN appointed Harvard professor John Ruggie as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. Over the course of six years—2005 to 2011—Ruggie and his team conducted extensive research and consultations to identify and clarify responsibility and accountability standards for States and businesses in all world regions. They used this research to develop a three-pillar framework for the UNGPs known as Protect, Respect, and Remedy to help clarify who is responsible for what. These three pillars constitute the basis for the UNGPs.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) unanimously endorsed the UNGPs, marking a truly unprecedented significant milestone with this unified decision. The internationally-recognized legitimacy of the UNGPs also comes from the broad global consensus collected throughout Ruggie’s consultative process with governments, businesses, civil society, and international organizations. 

The UNGPs enumerate actions to help prevent and address adverse human rights impacts associated with business operations and have become the global standard in any discussion on these issues. 

Next, let’s learn about each pillar of the UNGP framework.

The UNGPs’ Three Pillars Are Protect, Respect, and Remedy

The three-pillar framework for the UNGPs defines States’ and businesses’ responsibilities in protecting and respecting human rights and remedying negative human rights impacts. 

The UNGPs assert that States should protect people from human rights abuses from companies operating under their jurisdiction. Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights—to avoid infringing on the rights of others—as defined by international law. Both States and businesses should cooperate in providing remedies to those adversely impacted by business operations through judicial mechanisms and beyond. 

Pillar labeled Protect

State Duty to Protect 

Pillar labeled Respect

Corporate Responsibility to Respect

Pillar labeled Remedy

Access to Effective Remedy

Guidance for States on how they can meet their obligations to protect against business-related negative human rights impacts

Blueprint for businesses to follow to prevent and address negative human rights impacts

Recourse for those who experience negative human rights impacts to seek a remedy

  • Adopt and enforce laws to prevent negative impacts
  • Oversee the activities of businesses
  • Hold businesses accountable for human rights abuses
  • Identify and address any regulatory gaps
  • Provide effective guidance to businesses

  • Conduct due diligence to avoid infringing human rights in their operations
  • Extend the responsibility to respect human rights to all operations and existing business relationships
  • Understand that compliance with local laws may not be sufficient to meet international expectations
  • Recognize that philanthropic acts, such as charitable donations, do not offset negative human rights impacts

  • Make available judicial avenues and other mechanisms so those adversely impacted can seek remedy
  • Implement grievance mechanisms at the business level so people can file their complaints

Here’s a quick video to deepen your understanding of the significance of the UNGPs and discover more examples of how States and businesses apply each pillar. 

Next, let’s explore significant human rights achievements in the business world and assess the work that lies ahead. 

What We’ve Achieved

The HRC’s unanimous endorsement of the UNGPs was pivotal in international debates on business and human rights. For the first time in history, all parties involved—States, the business sector, and civil society—agreed on a common framework to deal with these complex issues. As stated by Professor Ruggie, the UNGPs did not represent the end of all business and human rights challenges—but it was the end of the beginning because, at last, a clear foundation existed. 

The UNGPs are not a binding document, like UN Human Rights treaties or International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. However, they are authoritative because they reflect the current international consensus on this issue. But more importantly, beyond whether they are legally binding or not, the UNGPs have proven effective. 

Some countries have used the UNGPs to enact new laws. In the US, for instance, laws require government contractors to ensure that they are not involved in human trafficking or forced labor. And corporations of all sizes, including leading multinationals and large commercial banks, use the UNGPs to guide their internal policies. This is a radical transformation in relation to the practice in previous decades. 

What’s more, a recent corporate sustainability assessment (CSA) by Standard and Poor’s (S&P) Global, assessing the human rights performance trends of over 700 global businesses, found a consistent increase in the number of businesses: 

  • Actively committing to human rights—from 66% in 2017 to 90% in 2020.
  • Including relevant requirements for suppliers and other business partners—in 2020, 71% of businesses included human rights-related requirements for suppliers, and 42% included them for other business partners.
  • Affirming to have a human rights due diligence (HRDD) system in place—from 56% in 2017 to 74% in 2020.

There have been advancements internationally in holding corporations accountable. In a recent example, a lawsuit brought by workers at an Eritrean gold mine against the Canadian company that operated the mine resulted in a sizable settlement, based on evidence of abusive working conditions including forced labor and slavery.

What Lies Ahead

With all this progress, there is still work ahead. The S&P Global CSA found that the UNGPs’ third pillar—access to remedy—is one place where businesses have room to grow. Of the participating businesses in the CSA, a mere 33% reported on their remediation actions and only 23% reported on their mitigation plans. 

Transparency is also an issue. These figures illustrate businesses’ reluctance to disclose information on their approaches to business and human rights, including individual cases of remediation. This caution may come from apprehension around publicly acknowledging responsibility for negative human rights impacts. Yet, businesses can benefit from a strong push for transparency. It allows businesses to benchmark against industry peers. Transparency also allows them to effectively demonstrate how they handle human rights impacts with a solid remediation approach in place.

For more of the S&P Global CSA’s findings, and to view the full report, see “Business and Human Rights: Towards a Decade of Global Implementation” in the Resources section.

Many of these efforts also still need to translate into changes in the lives of people. The UN Human Rights bodies continue to monitor cases of human rights abuses associated with business operations globally. These abuses often occur in low governance areas, hidden from public opinion, and affect the weakest links of global supply chains—and the poorest people. Other human rights challenges, such as racism, gender discrimination, poor working conditions, or environmental degradation, affect businesses worldwide.

Collectively, businesses have made advancements in the realm of human rights, and there are opportunities to continue to improve. In the next unit, we look more specifically at how businesses can effectively integrate human rights in their risk management processes and provide remediation for adverse impacts. 


Keep learning for
Sign up for an account to continue.
What’s in it for you?
  • Get personalized recommendations for your career goals
  • Practice your skills with hands-on challenges and quizzes
  • Track and share your progress with employers
  • Connect to mentorship and career opportunities