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Business and Human Rights

When we think of human rights we usually think of rights that need to be protected in relation to those who wield political power. The earliest human rights documents defined rights that people had in relation to monarchs. The modern human rights regime came into being partly in response to the atrocities of the Nazis before and during World War II.

More recently, corporate power has also moved into focus. The operations of corporations, especially in extractive industries such as mining and oil production have significant impacts on local populations.


It is not surprising, then that the global Business and Human Rights (BHR) movement has its origins in struggles by local people against environmental destruction and human rights abuses by multinationals. Most notable are the struggles of the Ogoni people in Nigeria against the effects of oil extraction and of the victims of the Bhopal disaster.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa was another key factor. The Reverend Leon Sullivan drafted a set of principles for US companies investing in apartheid-era South Africa that aimed to counteract some of the human rights violations that non-white people suffered.

Formation of International Law

The current instruments have evolved in a number of contexts and over time. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were established in the 1970s and updated on a regular basis. The National Contact Points for Responsible Business Conduct are national institutions that seek to promote the Guidelines and related due diligence practices. They also serve as non-judicial grievance mechanisms, thereby providing access to remedy for those affected by the impacts of business conduct.

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Further Reading

Wettstein, Florian. Business and Human Rights: Ethical, Legal, and Managerial Perspectives. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

  1. These early codes of conduct had an impact on the movement promoting corporate social responsibility