United Nations Guiding Principles on the Human Rights Responsibilities of Businesses

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What follows is a summary of pertinent provisions of the UN Guiding Principles that most directly apply to Caterpillar’s role in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

In acknowledgement of the fact that corporate activities could have an adverse impact on human rights, the United Nations established a mandate to address the issue of business and human rights in 2005. After the appointment of a Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie, the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework was developed in 2008.

This framework has two essential components with regards to addressing corporate liability in human rights violations. The first is that it recognizes that countries that are member-nations of the UN have the duty under international human rights law to protect all individuals within their territory from human rights abuses carried out by businesses. The term duty implies that States are required to implement laws and regulations to monitor, prevent, and address business-related human rights abuses and ensure effective access to remedy.

Secondly, the framework also recognizes that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate. These two obligations to respect human rights exist independently of each other, and therefore, both UN member-states and businesses have distinct, yet complementary obligations.

This framework was further strengthened in 2011 when, in a resolution cosponsored by the U.S., the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The “UN Guiding Principles” further detailed and solidified the essential duties and responsibilities member-states and businesses regarding human rights abuses, providing a blueprint for companies to demonstrate respect for human rights.

The Guiding Principles are grounded in recognition of “the role of business enterprises as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions, required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights” and therefore can be leveraged by civil society organizations and advocates to hold companies accountable for failing to respect human rights laws and standards.

The Guiding Principles are the most authoritative and internationally recognized framework for business and human rights, and are a powerful statement of the standard of conduct that is expected from States and corporations alike.

Based on existing obligations and responsibilities under international human rights law, the Guiding Principles are divided into three main pillars: protect, respect, and remedy.

The first pillar relates to the State’s duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties including businesses. This ‘duty’ involves the obligation of States to “prevent, investigate, punish and redress” human rights abuses that take place in domestic business operations and to employ “effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication” to that effect. The Guiding Principles also set out the operational activities applicable to States in upholding their duty. These entail setting appropriate regulatory and policy functions, such as enforcing necessary laws, policies and standards; supporting respect for human right in conflict-affected areas; and ensuring policy coherence.

The second pillar involves the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. This responsibility entails that businesses avoid causing or contributing to human rights abuses, and address any such abuse with which they are involved; and that they “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

The third pillar addresses the need for access to effective remedy.

The Guiding Principles apply to all businesses, in all operating contexts, and all business enterprises have a responsibility to respect internationally recognized human rights regardless of location of operation. Their responsibilities apply irrespective of a State’s ability or willingness to fulfill its own obligations.

Principle 11 of the Guiding Principles provides that: “Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.” This responsibility to respect human rights and address violations is twofold and entails that businesses:

  • Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own operations and address such impacts when they do occur;
  • Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights abuses that are “directly linked to their operations, products or serviced by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

Here, a “business relationship” encompasses relationships with business partners, entities in its value chain, and any other non-State or State entity directly linked to its business operations, products or services.

Guiding Principle 11 makes clear that businesses are responsible not just for their own acts. They are also responsible for the acts of their business partners (in this case, the Israeli military) that use their products (Caterpillar’s militarized D9 bulldozers) to cause human rights impacts, even if Caterpillar itself has “not contributed to those impacts.”