COVID-19 and Human Rights: Impacts and Business Action in the Seafood Sector

This webinar –organized by the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions— focused on:

  1. The experience of people on the frontlines of seafood production across geographies (focus on the Global South) with regard to human rights, health and safety, and equity before and during COVID-19
  2. Current efforts and interventions to address these issues and where new approaches are needed, and if the impacts of COVID-19 requires new/different interventions, and
  3. The role NGOs and seafood companies can play to support efforts and address the needs of workers and communities.

Panelists included Neill Wilkins, Head of Migrant Workers Programme (IHRB); Ines Lopez, Catalyst of Change (COBI); and Francis West, Shift’s Business Engagement Director.

Access to Remedy

Pillar 3: Access to remedy

Foundational Principle

25. As part of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuse, States must take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means, that when such abuses occur within their territory and/or jurisdiction those affected have access to effective remedy.



Unless States take appropriate steps to investigate, punish and redress business-related human rights abuses when they do occur, the State duty to protect can be rendered weak or even meaningless.

Access to effective remedy has both procedural and substantive aspects. The remedies provided by the grievance mechanisms discussed in this section may take a range of substantive forms the aim of which, generally speaking, will be to counteract or make good any human rights harms that have occurred. Remedy may include apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, financial or non-financial compensation and punitive sanctions (whether criminal or administrative, such as fines), as well as the prevention of harm through, for example, injunctions or guarantees of non-repetition.

Procedures for the provision of remedy should be impartial, protected from corruption and free from political or other attempts to influence the outcome.

For the purpose of these Guiding Principles, a grievance is understood to be a perceived injustice evoking an individual’s or a group’s sense of entitlement, which may be based on law, contract, explicit or implicit promises, customary practice, or general notions of fairness of aggrieved communities. The term grievance mechanism is used to indicate any routinized, State-based or non-State-based, judicial or non-judicial process through which grievances concerning business-related human rights abuse can be raised and remedy can be sought.

State-based grievance mechanisms may be administered by a branch or agency of the State, or by an independent body on a statutory or constitutional basis. They may be judicial or non-judicial. In some mechanisms, those affected are directly involved in seeking remedy; in others, an intermediary seeks remedy on their behalf. Examples include the courts (for both criminal and civil actions), labour tribunals, national human rights institutions, National Contact Points under the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, many ombudsperson offices, and Government-run complaints offices.

Ensuring access to remedy for business-related human rights abuses requires also that States facilitate public awareness and understanding of these mechanisms, how they can be accessed, and any support (financial or expert) for doing so.

State-based judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms should form the foundation of a wider system of remedy. Within such a system, operational-level grievance mechanisms can provide early-stage recourse and resolution. State-based and operational-level mechanisms, in turn, can be supplemented or enhanced by the remedial functions of collaborative initiatives as well as those of international and regional human rights mechanisms. Further guidance with regard to these mechanisms is provided in Guiding Principles 26 to 31.

Operational Principles


26. States should take appropriate steps to ensure the effectiveness of domestic judicial mechanisms when addressing business-related human rights abuses, including considering ways to reduce legal, practical and other relevant barriers that could lead to a denial of access to remedy.



Effective judicial mechanisms are at the core of ensuring access to remedy. Their ability to address business-related human rights abuses depends on their impartiality, integrity and ability to accord due process. States should ensure that they do not erect barriers to prevent legitimate cases from being brought before the courts in situations where judicial recourse is an essential part of accessing remedy or alternative sources of effective remedy are unavailable.

They should also ensure that the provision of justice is not prevented by corruption of the judicial process, that courts are independent of economic or political pressures from other State agents and from business actors, and that the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed.

Legal barriers that can prevent legitimate cases involving business-related human rights abuse from being addressed can arise where, for example:

  • The way in which legal responsibility is attributed among members of a corporate group under domestic criminal and civil laws facilitates the avoidance of appropriate accountability;
  • Where claimants face a denial of justice in a host State and cannot access home State courts regardless of the merits of the claim;
  • Where certain groups, such as indigenous peoples and migrants, are excluded from the same level of legal protection of their human rights that applies to the wider population.

Practical and procedural barriers to accessing judicial remedy can arise where, for example:

  • The costs of bringing claims go beyond being an appropriate deterrent to unmeritorious cases and/or cannot be reduced to reasonable levels through Government support, “market-based” mechanisms (such as litigation insurance and legal fee structures), or other means;
  • Claimants experience difficulty in securing legal representation, due to a lack of resources or of other incentives for lawyers to advise claimants in this area;
  • There are inadequate options for aggregating claims or enabling representative proceedings (such as class actions and other collective action procedures), and this prevents effective remedy for individual claimants;
  • State prosecutors lack adequate resources, expertise and support to meet the State’s own obligations to investigate individual and business involvement in human rights-related crimes.

Many of these barriers are the result of, or compounded by, the frequent imbalances between the parties to business related human rights claims, such as in their financial resources, access to information and expertise. Moreover, whether through active discrimination or as the unintended consequences of the way judicial mechanisms are designed and operate, individuals from groups or populations at heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalization often face additional cultural, social, physical and financial impediments to accessing, using and benefiting from these mechanisms.

Particular attention should be given to the rights and specific needs of such groups or populations at each stage of the remedial process: access, procedures and outcome.


27. States should provide effective and appropriate non-judicial grievance mechanisms, alongside judicial mechanisms, as part of a comprehensive State-based system for the remedy of business-related human rights abuse.



Administrative, legislative and other non-judicial mechanisms play an essential role in complementing and supplementing judicial mechanisms. Even where judicial systems are effective and well-resourced, they cannot carry the burden of addressing all alleged abuses; judicial remedy is not always required; nor is it always the favoured approach for all claimants.

Gaps in the provision of remedy for business-related human rights abuses could be filled, where appropriate, by expanding the mandates of existing non-judicial mechanisms and/or by adding new mechanisms. These may be mediation-based, adjudicative or follow other culturally appropriate and rights-compatible processes – or involve some combination of these –depending on the issues concerned, any public interest involved, and the potential needs of the parties. To ensure their effectiveness, they should meet the criteria set out in Principle 31.

National human rights institutions have a particularly important role to play in this regard.

As with judicial mechanisms, States should consider ways to address any imbalances between the parties to business-related human rights claimsand any additional barriers to access faced by individuals from groups or populations at heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalization.

Non-state-based grievance mechanisms

28. States should consider ways to facilitate access to effective non State based grievance mechanisms dealing with business-related human rights harms.



One category of non-State-based grievance mechanisms encompasses those administered by a business enterprise alone or with stakeholders, by an industry association or a multi-stakeholder group. They are non-judicial, but may use adjudicative, dialogue-based or other culturally appropriate and rights-compatible processes. These mechanisms may offer particular benefits such as speed of access and remediation, reduced costs and/or transnational reach.

Another category comprises regional and international human rights bodies. These have dealt most often with alleged violations by States of their obligations to respect human rights. However, some have also dealt with the failure of a State to meet its duty to protect against human rights abuse by business enterprises.

States can play a helpful role in raising awareness of, or otherwise facilitating access to, such options, alongside the mechanisms provided by States themselves.

29. To make it possible for grievances to be addressed early and remediated directly, business enterprises should establish or participate in effective operational-level grievance mechanisms for individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted.



Operational-level grievance mechanisms are accessible directly to individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted by a business enterprise. They are typically administered by enterprises, alone or in collaboration with others, including relevant stakeholders. They may also be provided through recourse to a mutually acceptable external expert or body. They do not require that those bringing a complaint first access other means of recourse. They can engage the business enterprise directly in assessing the issues and seeking remediation of any harm.

Operational-level grievance mechanisms perform two key functions regarding the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights.

  • First, they support the identification of adverse human rights impacts as a part of an enterprise’s ongoing human rights due diligence. They do so by providing a channel for those directly impacted by the enterprise’s operations to raise concerns when they believe they are being or will be adversely impacted. By analysing trends and patterns in complaints, business enterprises can also identify systemic problems and adapt their practices accordingly;
  • Second, these mechanisms make it possible for grievances, once identified, to be addressed and for adverse impacts to be remediated early and directly by the business enterprise, thereby preventing harms from compounding and grievances from escalating.

Such mechanisms need not require that a complaint or grievance amount to an alleged human rights abuse before it can be raised, but specifically aim to identify any legitimate concerns of those who may be adversely impacted. If those concerns are not identified and addressed, they may over time escalate into more major disputes and human rights abuses.

Operational-level grievance mechanisms should reflect certain criteria to ensure their effectiveness in practice (Principle 31). These criteria can be met through many different forms of grievance mechanism according to the demands of scale, resource, sector, culture and other parameters.

Operational-level grievance mechanisms can be important complements to wider stakeholder engagement and collective bargaining processes, but cannot substitute for either. They should not be used to undermine the role of legitimate trade unions in addressing labour-related disputes, nor to preclude access to judicial or other non-judicial grievance mechanisms.

30. Industry, multi-stakeholder and other collaborative initiatives that are based on respect for human rights-related standards should ensure that effective grievance mechanisms are available.



Human rights-related standards are increasingly reflected in commitments undertaken by industry bodies, multi-stakeholder and other collaborative initiatives, through codes of conduct, performance standards, global framework agreements between trade unions and transnational corporations, and similar undertakings.

Such collaborative initiatives should ensure the availability of effective mechanisms through which affected parties or their legitimate representatives can raise concerns when they believe the commitments in question have not been met. The legitimacy of such initiatives may be put at risk if they do not provide for such mechanisms. The mechanisms could be at the level of individual members, of the collaborative initiative, or both.

These mechanisms should provide for accountability and help enable the remediation of adverse human rights impacts.


31. In order to ensure their effectiveness, non-judicial grievance mechanisms, both State-based and non-State-based, should be:


Enabling trust from the stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and being accountable for the fair conduct of grievance processes.


Being known to all stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and providing adequate assistance for those who may face particular barriers to access.


Providing a clear and known procedure with an indicative time frame for each stage, and clarity on the types of process and outcome available and means of monitoring implementation.


Seeking to ensure that aggrieved parties have reasonable access to sources of information, advice and expertise necessary to engage in a grievance process on fair, informed and respectful terms.


Keeping parties to a grievance informed about its progress, and providing sufficient information about the mechanism’s performance to build confidence in its effectiveness and meet any public interest at stake.


Ensuring that outcomes and remedies accord with internationally recognized human rights.

A source of continuous learning:

Drawing on relevant measures to identify lessons for improving the mechanism and preventing future grievances and harms.

 Operational-level mechanisms should also be:

Based on engagement and dialogue:

Consulting the stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended on their design and performance, and focusing on dialogue as the means to address and resolve grievances.



A grievance mechanism can only serve its purpose if the people it is intended to serve know about it, trust it and are able to use it. These criteria provide a benchmark for designing, revising or assessing a non-judicial grievance mechanism to help ensure that it is effective in practice. Poorly designed or implemented grievance mechanisms can risk compounding a sense of grievance amongst affected stakeholders by heightening their sense of disempowerment and disrespect by the process.

The first seven criteria apply to any State-based or non-State-based, adjudicative or dialogue-based mechanism. The eighth criterion is specific to operational-level mechanisms that business enterprises help administer.

The term “grievance mechanism” is used here as a term of art. The term itself may not always be appropriate or helpful when applied to a specific mechanism, but the criteria for effectiveness remain the same. Commentary on the specific criteria follows:

  • Stakeholders for whose use a mechanism is intended must trust it if they are to choose to use it. Accountability for ensuring that the parties to a grievance process cannot interfere with its fair conduct is typically one important factor in building stakeholder trust;
  • Barriers to access may include a lack of awareness of the mechanism, language, literacy, costs, physical location and fears of reprisal;
  • In order for a mechanism to be trusted and used, it should provide public information about the procedure it offers. Time frames for each stage should be respected wherever possible, while allowing that flexibility may sometimes be needed;
  • In grievances or disputes between business enterprises and affected stakeholders, the latter frequently have much less access to information and expert resources, and often lack the financial resources to pay for them. Where this imbalance is not redressed, it can reduce both the achievement and perception of a fair process and make it harder to arrive at durable solutions;
  • Communicating regularly with parties about the progress of individual grievances can be essential to retaining confidence in the process. Providing transparency about the mechanism’s performance to wider stakeholders, through statistics, case studies or more detailed information about the handling of certain cases, can be important to demonstrate its legitimacy and retain broad trust. At the same time, confidentiality of the dialogue between parties and of individuals’ identities should be provided where necessary;
  • Grievances are frequently not framed in terms of human rights and many do not initially raise human rights concerns. Regardless, where outcomes have implications for human rights, care should be taken to ensure that they are in line with internationally recognized human rights;
  • Regular analysis of the frequency, patterns and causes of grievances can enable the institution administering the mechanism to identify and influence policies, procedures or practices that should be altered to prevent future harm;
  • For an operational-level grievance mechanism, engaging with affected stakeholder groups about its design and performance can help to ensure that it meets their needs, that they will use it in practice, and that there is a shared interest in ensuring its success.
  • Since a business enterprise cannot, with legitimacy, both be the subject of complaints and unilaterally determine their outcome, these mechanisms should focus on reaching agreed solutions through dialogue. Where adjudication is needed, this should be provided by a legitimate, independent third-party mechanism.

Corporate Responsibility to Respect


Foundational Principles

11. 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.



The responsibility to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate. It exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations, and does not diminish those obligations. And it exists over and above compliance with national laws and regulations protecting human rights.

Addressing adverse human rights impacts requires taking adequate measures for their prevention, mitigation and, where appropriate, remediation. Business enterprises may undertake other commitments or activities to support and promote human rights, which may contribute to the enjoyment of rights. But this does not offset a failure to respect human rights throughout their operations.

Business enterprises should not undermine States’ abilities to meet their own human rights obligations, including by actions that might weaken the integrity of judicial processes.

12. The responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights refers to internationally recognized human rights – understood, at a minimum, as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.



Because business enterprises can have an impact on virtually the entire spectrum of internationally recognized human rights, their responsibility to respect applies to all such rights. In practice, some human rights may be at greater risk than others in particular industries or contexts, and therefore will be the focus of heightened attention. However, situations may change, so all human rights should be the subject of periodic review.

An authoritative list of the core internationally recognized human rights is contained in the International Bill of Human Rights (consisting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the main instruments through which it has been codified: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), coupled with the principles concerning fundamental rights in the eight ILO core conventions as set out in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These are the benchmarks against which other social actors assess the human rights impacts of business enterprises. The responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights is distinct from issues of legal liability and enforcement, which remain defined largely by national law provisions in relevant jurisdictions.

Depending on circumstances, business enterprises may need to consider additional standards. For instance, enterprises should respect the human rights of individuals belonging to specific groups or populations that require particular attention, where they may have adverse human rights impacts on them. In this connection, United Nations instruments have elaborated further on the rights of indigenous peoples; women; national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities; children; persons with disabilities; and migrant workers and their families. Moreover, in situations of armed conflict enterprises should respect the standards of international humanitarian law.

13. The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises:

(a) Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur;

(b) 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.



Business enterprises may be involved with adverse human rights impacts either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships with other parties. Guiding Principle 19 elaborates further on the implications for how business enterprises should address these situations. For the purpose of these Guiding Principles a business enterprise’s “activities” are understood to include both actions and omissions; and its “business relationships” are understood to include 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.

14. The responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights applies to all enterprises regardless of their size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure. Nevertheless, the scale and complexity of the means through which enterprises meet that responsibility may vary according to these factors and with the severity of the enterprise’s adverse human rights impacts.



The means through which a business enterprise meets its responsibility to respect human rights will be proportional to, among other factors, its size. Small and medium-sized enterprises may have less capacity as well as more informal processes and management structures than larger companies, so their respective policies and processes will take on different forms. But some small and medium-sized enterprises can have severe human rights impacts, which will require corresponding measures regardless of their size. Severity of impacts will be judged by their scale, scope and irremediable character.

The means through which a business enterprise meets its responsibility to respect human rights may also vary depending on whether, and the extent to which, it conducts business through a corporate group or individually.

However, the responsibility to respect human rights applies fully and equally to all business enterprises.

15. In order to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, business enterprises should have in place policies and processes appropriate to their size and circumstances, including:

(a) A policy commitment to meet their responsibility to respect human rights;

(b) A human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights;

(c) Processes to enable the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts they cause or to which they contribute.



Business enterprises need to know and show that they respect human rights. They cannot do so unless they have certain policies and processes in place. Principles 16 to 24 elaborate further on these.

Operational Principles


16. As the basis for embedding their responsibility to respect human rights, business enterprises should express their commitment to meet this responsibility through a statement of policy that:

(a) Is approved at the most senior level of the business enterprise;

(b) Is informed by relevant internal and/or external expertise;

(c) Stipulates the enterprise’s human rights expectations of personnel, business partners and other parties directly linked to its operations, products or services;

(d) Is publicly available and communicated internally and externally to all personnel, business partners and other relevant parties;

(e) Is reflected in operational policies and procedures necessary to embed it throughout the business enterprise.



The term “statement” is used generically, to describe whatever means an enterprise employs to set out publicly its responsibilities, commitments, and expectations.

The level of expertise required to ensure that the policy statement is adequately informed will vary according to the complexity of the business enterprise’s operations. Expertise can be drawn from various sources, ranging from credible online or written resources to consultation with recognized experts.

The statement of commitment should be publicly available. It should be communicated actively to entities with which the enterprise has contractual relationships; others directly linked to its operations, which may include State security forces; investors; and, in the case of operations with significant human rights risks, to the potentially affected stakeholders.

Internal communication of the statement and of related policies and procedures should make clear what the lines and systems of accountability will be, and should be supported by any necessary training for personnel in relevant business functions.

Just as States should work towards policy coherence, so business enterprises need to strive for coherence between their responsibility to respect human rights and policies and procedures that govern their wider business activities and relationships. This should include, for example, policies and procedures that set financial and other performance incentives for personnel; procurement practices; and lobbying activities where human rights are at stake.

Through these and any other appropriate means, the policy statement should be embedded from the top of the business enterprise through all its functions, which otherwise may act without awareness or regard for human rights.

Human Rights Due Diligence

17. In order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts, business enterprises should carry out human rights due diligence. The process should include assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed. Human rights due diligence:

(a) Should cover adverse human rights impacts that the business enterprise may cause or contribute to through its own activities, or which may be directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationships;

(b) Will vary in complexity with the size of the business enterprise, the risk of severe human rights impacts, and the nature and context of its operations;

(c) Should be ongoing, recognizing that the human rights risks may change over time as the business enterprise’s operations and operating context evolve.



This Principle defines the parameters for human rights due diligence, while Principles 18 through 21 elaborate its essential components. Human rights risks are understood to be the business enterprise’s potential adverse human rights impacts. Potential impacts should be addressed through prevention or mitigation, while actual impacts – those that have already occurred – should be a subject for remediation (Principle 22).

Human rights due diligence can be included within broader enterprise risk management systems, provided that it goes beyond simply identifying and managing material risks to the company itself, to include risks to rights-holders. Human rights due diligence should be initiated as early as possible in the development of a new activity or relationship, given that human rights risks can be increased or mitigated already at the stage of structuring contracts or other agreements, and may be inherited through mergers or acquisitions.

Where business enterprises have large numbers of entities in their value chains it may be unreasonably difficult to conduct due diligence for adverse human rights impacts across them all. If so, business enterprises should identify general areas where the risk of adverse human rights impacts is most significant, whether due to certain suppliers’ or clients’ operating context, the particular operations, products or services involved, or other relevant considerations, and prioritize these for human rights due diligence. Questions of complicity may arise when a business enterprise contributes to, or is seen as contributing to, adverse human rights impacts caused by other parties. Complicity has both non-legal and legal meanings. As a nonlegal matter, business enterprises may be perceived as being “complicit” in the acts of another party where, for example, they are seen to benefit from an abuse committed by that party.

As a legal matter, most national jurisdictions prohibit complicity in the commission of a crime, and a number allow for criminal liability of business enterprises in such cases. Typically, civil actions can also be based on an enterprise’s alleged contribution to a harm, although these may not be framed in human rights terms. The weight of international criminal law jurisprudence indicates that the relevant standard for aiding and abetting is knowingly providing practical assistance or encouragement that has a substantial effect on the commission of a crime.

Conducting appropriate human rights due diligence should help business enterprises address the risk of legal claims against them by showing that they took every reasonable step to avoid involvement with an alleged human rights abuse. However, business enterprises conducting such due diligence should not assume that, by itself, this will automatically and fully absolve them from liability for causing or contributing to human rights abuses.

18. In order to gauge human rights risks, business enterprises should identify and assess any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which they may be involved either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships. This process should:

(a) Draw on internal and/or independent external human rights expertise;

(b) Involve meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate to the size of the business enterprise and the nature and context of the operation.



The initial step in conducting human rights due diligence is to identify and assess the nature of the actual and potential adverse human rights impacts with which a business enterprise may be involved. The purpose is to understand the specific impacts on specific people, given a specific context of operations. Typically this includes assessing the human rights context prior to a proposed business activity, where possible; identifying who may be affected; cataloguing the relevant human rights standards and issues; and projecting how the proposed activity and associated business relationships could have adverse human rights impacts on those identified.

In this process, business enterprises should pay special attention to any particular human rights impacts on individuals from groups or populations that may be at heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalization, and bear in mind the different risks that may be faced by women and men. While processes for assessing human rights impacts can be incorporated within other processes such as risk assessments or environmental and social impact assessments, they should include all internationally recognized human rights as a reference point, since enterprises may potentially impact virtually any of these rights.

Because human rights situations are dynamic, assessments of human rights impacts should be undertaken at regular intervals: prior to a new activity or relationship; prior to major decisions or changes in the operation (e.g. market entry, product launch, policy change, or wider changes to the business); in response to or anticipation of changes in the operating environment (e.g. rising social tensions); and periodically throughout the life of an activity or relationship.

To enable business enterprises to assess their human rights impacts accurately, they should seek to understand the concerns of potentially affected stakeholders by consulting them directly in a manner that takes into account language and other potential barriers to effective engagement. In situations where such consultation is not possible, business enterprises should consider reasonable alternatives such as consulting credible, independent expert resources, including human rights defenders and others from civil society. The assessment of human rights impacts informs subsequent steps in the human rights due diligence process.

19. In order to prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts, business enterprises should integrate the findings from their impact assessments across relevant internal functions and processes, and take appropriate action.

a) Effective integration requires that:

i) Responsibility for addressing such impacts is assigned to the appropriate level and function within the business enterprise;

ii) Internal decision-making, budget allocations and oversight processes enable effective responses to such impacts.

b) Appropriate action will vary according to:

i) Whether the business enterprise causes or contributes to an adverse impact, or whether it is involved solely because the impact is directly linked to its operations, products or services by a business relationship;

ii) The extent of its leverage in addressing the adverse impact.



The horizontal integration across the business enterprise of specific findings from assessing human rights impacts can only be effective if its human rights policy commitment has been embedded into all relevant business functions.  This is required to ensure that the assessment findings are properly understood, given due weight, and acted upon.

In assessing human rights impacts, business enterprises will have looked for both actual and potential adverse impacts. Potential impacts should be prevented or mitigated through the horizontal integration of findings across the business enterprise, while actual impacts—those that have already occurred – should be a subject for remediation (Principle 22).

Where a business enterprise causes or may cause an adverse human rights impact, it should take the necessary steps to cease or prevent the impact.

Where a business enterprise contributes or may contribute to an adverse human rights impact, it should take the necessary steps to cease or prevent its contribution and use its leverage to mitigate any remaining impact to the greatest extent possible. Leverage is considered to exist where the enterprise has the ability to effect change in the wrongful practices of an entity that causes a harm.

Where a business enterprise has not contributed to an adverse human rights impact, but that impact is nevertheless directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationship with another entity, the situation is more complex. Among the factors that will enter into the determination of the appropriate action in such situations are the enterprise’s leverage over the entity concerned, how crucial the relationship is to the enterprise, the severity of the abuse, and whether terminating the relationship with the entity itself would have adverse human rights consequences.

The more complex the situation and its implications for human rights, the stronger is the case for the enterprise to draw on independent expert advice in deciding how to respond.

If the business enterprise has leverage to prevent or mitigate the adverse impact, it should exercise it. And if it lacks leverage there may be ways for the enterprise to increase it. Leverage may be increased by, for example, offering capacity-building or other incentives to the related entity, or collaborating with other actors.

There are situations in which the enterprise lacks the leverage to prevent or mitigate adverse impacts and is unable to increase its leverage. Here, the enterprise should consider ending the relationship, taking into account credible assessments of potential adverse human rights impacts of doing so.

Where the relationship is “crucial” to the enterprise, ending it raises further challenges. A relationship could be deemed as crucial if it provides a product or service that is essential to the enterprise’s business, and for which no reasonable alternative source exists. Here the severity of the adverse human rights impact must also be considered: the more severe the abuse, the more quickly the enterprise will need to see change before it takes a decision on whether it should end the relationship. In any case, for as long as the abuse continues and the enterprise remains in the relationship, it should be able to demonstrate its own ongoing efforts to mitigate the impact and be prepared to accept any consequences – reputational, financial or legal – of the continuing connection.

20. In order to verify whether adverse human rights impacts are being addressed, business enterprises should track the effectiveness of their response. Tracking should:

(a) Be based on appropriate qualitative and quantitative indicators;

(b) Draw on feedback from both internal and external sources, including affected stakeholders.



Tracking is necessary in order for a business enterprise to know if its human rights policies are being implemented optimally, whether it has responded effectively to the identified human rights impacts, and to drive continuous improvement.

Business enterprises should make particular efforts to track the effectiveness of their responses to impacts on individuals from groups or populations that may be at heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalization.

Tracking should be integrated into relevant internal reporting processes. Business enterprises might employ tools they already use in relation to other issues. This could include performance contracts and reviews as well as surveys and audits, using gender-disaggregated data where relevant. Operational-level grievance mechanisms can also provide important feedback on the effectiveness of the business enterprise’s human rights due diligence from those directly affected (see Principle 29).

21. In order to account for how they address their human rights impacts, business enterprises should be prepared to communicate this externally, particularly when concerns are raised by or on behalf of affected stakeholders. Business enterprises whose operations or operating contexts pose risks of severe human rights impacts should report formally on how they address them. In all instances, communications should:

(a) Be of a form and frequency that reflect an enterprise’s human rights impacts and that are accessible to its intended audiences;

(b) Provide information that is sufficient to evaluate the adequacy of an enterprise’s response to the particular human rights impact involved;

(c) In turn not pose risks to affected stakeholders, personnel or to legitimate requirements of commercial confidentiality.



The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises have in place policies and processes through which they can both know and show that they respect human rights in practice. Showing involves communication, providing a measure of transparency and accountability to individuals or groups who may be impacted and to other relevant stakeholders, including investors.

Communication can take a variety of forms, including in-person meetings, online dialogues, consultation with affected stakeholders, and formal public reports. Formal reporting is itself evolving, from traditional annual reports and corporate responsibility/sustainability reports, to include online updates and integrated financial and non-financial reports.

Formal reporting by enterprises is expected where risks of severe human rights impacts exist, whether this is due to the nature of the business operations or operating contexts. The reporting should cover topics and indicators concerning how enterprises identify and address adverse impacts on human rights. Independent verification of human rights reporting can strengthen its content and credibility. Sector-specific indicators can provide helpful additional detail.


22. Where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes.



Even with the best policies and practices, a business enterprise may cause or contribute to an adverse human rights impact that it has not foreseen or been able to prevent. Where a business enterprise identifies such a situation, whether through its human rights due diligence process or other means, its responsibility to respect human rights requires active engagement in remediation, by itself or in cooperation with other actors. Operational-level grievance mechanisms for those potentially impacted by the business enterprise’s activities can be one effective means of enabling remediation when they meet certain core criteria, as set out in Principle 31.

Where adverse impacts have occurred that the business enterprise has not caused or contributed to, but which are directly linked to its operations, products or services by a business relationship, the responsibility to respect human rights does not require that the enterprise itself provide for remediation, though it may take a role in doing so.

Some situations, in particular where crimes are alleged, typically will require cooperation with judicial mechanisms. Further guidance on mechanisms through which remediation may be sought, including where allegations of adverse human rights impacts are contested, is included in chapter III on access to remedy.

 Issues of context

23. In all contexts, business enterprises should:

(a) Comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate;

(b) Seek ways to honour the principles of internationally recognized human rights when faced with conflicting requirements;

(c) Treat the risk of causing or contributing to gross human rights abuses as a legal compliance issue wherever they operate.



Although particular country and local contexts may affect the human rights risks of an enterprise’s activities and business relationships, all business enterprises have the same responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate. Where the domestic context renders it impossible to meet this responsibility fully, business enterprises are expected to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights to the greatest extent possible in the circumstances, and to be able to demonstrate their efforts in this regard.

Some operating environments, such as conflict-affected areas, may increase the risks of enterprises being complicit in gross human rights abuses committed by other actors (security forces, for example). Business enterprises should treat this risk as a legal compliance issue, given the expanding web of potential corporate legal liability arising from extraterritorial civil claims, and from the incorporation of the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in jurisdictions that provide for corporate criminal responsibility. In addition, corporate directors, officers and employees may be subject to individual liability for acts that amount to gross human rights abuses.

In complex contexts such as these, business enterprises should ensure that they do not exacerbate the situation. In assessing how best to respond, they will often be well advised to draw on not only expertise and cross-functional consultation within the enterprise, but also to consult externally with credible, independent experts, including from Governments, civil society, national human rights institutions and relevant multi-stakeholder initiatives.

24. Where it is necessary to prioritize actions to address actual and potential adverse human rights impacts, business enterprises should first seek to prevent and mitigate those that are most severe or where delayed response would make them irremediable.



While business enterprises should address all their adverse human rights impacts, it may not always be possible to address them simultaneously. In the absence of specific legal guidance, if prioritization is necessary business enterprises should begin with those human rights impacts that would be most severe, recognizing that a delayed response may affect remediability. Severity is not an absolute concept in this context, but is relative to the other human rights impacts the business enterprise has identified.

State Duty to Protect


Foundational Principles

1. States must protect against human rights abuse within their territory and/or jurisdiction by third parties, including business enterprises. This requires taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.



States’ international human rights law obligations require that they respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of individuals within their territory and/ or jurisdiction. This includes the duty to protect against human rights abuse by third parties, including business enterprises.

The State duty to protect is a standard of conduct. Therefore, States are not per se responsible for human rights abuse by private actors. However, States may breach their international human rights law obligations where such abuse can be attributed to them, or where they fail to take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress private actors’ abuse. While States generally have discretion in deciding upon these steps, they should consider the full range of permissible preventative and remedial measures, including policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication. States also have the duty to protect and promote the rule of law, including by taking measures to ensure equality before the law, fairness in its application, and by providing for adequate accountability, legal certainty, and procedural and legal transparency. This chapter focuses on preventative measures while chapter III outlines remedial measures.

2. States should set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction respect human rights throughout their operations.



At present States are not generally required under international human rights law to regulate the extraterritorial activities of businesses domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction. Nor are they generally prohibited from doing so, provided there is a recognized jurisdictional basis. Within these parameters some human rights treaty bodies recommend that home States take steps to prevent abuse abroad by business enterprises within their jurisdiction.

There are strong policy reasons for home States to set out clearly the expectation that businesses respect human rights abroad, especially where the State itself is involved in or supports those businesses. The reasons include ensuring predictability for business enterprises by providing coherent and consistent messages, and preserving the State’s own reputation.

States have adopted a range of approaches in this regard. Some are domestic measures with extraterritorial implications. Examples include requirements on “parent” companies to report on the global operations of the entire enterprise; multilateral soft-law instruments such as the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and performance standards required by institutions that support overseas investments. Other approaches amount to direct extraterritorial legislation and enforcement. This includes criminal regimes that allow for prosecutions based on the nationality of the perpetrator no matter where the offence occurs. Various factors may contribute to the perceived and actual reasonableness of States’ actions, for example whether they are grounded in multilateral agreement.

Operational Principles

General State Regulatory and Policy Functions

3. In meeting their duty to protect, States should:

(a) Enforce laws that are aimed at, or have the effect of, requiring business enterprises to respect human rights, and periodically to assess the adequacy of such laws and address any gaps;

(b) Ensure that other laws and policies governing the creation and ongoing operation of business enterprises, such as corporate law, do not constrain but enable business respect for human rights;

(c) Provide effective guidance to business enterprises on how to respect human rights throughout their operations;

(d) Encourage, and where appropriate require, business enterprises to communicate how they address their human rights impacts.



States should not assume that businesses invariably prefer, or benefit from, State inaction, and they should consider a smart mix of measures – national and international, mandatory and voluntary – to foster business respect for human rights.

The failure to enforce existing laws that directly or indirectly regulate business respect for human rights is often a significant legal gap in State practice. Such laws might range from non-discrimination and labour laws to environmental, property, privacy and anti-bribery laws. Therefore, it is important for States to consider whether such laws are currently being enforced effectively, and if not, why this is the case and what measures may reasonably correct the situation.

It is equally important for States to review whether these laws provide the necessary coverage in light of evolving circumstances and whether, together with relevant policies, they provide an environment conducive to business respect for human rights. For example, greater clarity in some areas of law and policy, such as those governing access to land, including entitlements in relation to ownership or use of land, is often necessary to protect both rights-holders and business enterprises.

Laws and policies that govern the creation and ongoing operation of business enterprises, such as corporate and securities laws, directly shape business behaviour. Yet their implications for human rights remain poorly understood. For example, there is a lack of clarity in corporate and securities law regarding what companies and their officers are permitted, let alone required, to do regarding human rights. Laws and policies in this area should provide sufficient guidance to enable enterprises to respect human rights, with due regard to the role of existing governance structures such as corporate boards.

Guidance to business enterprises on respecting human rights should indicate expected outcomes and help share best practices. It should advise on appropriate methods, including human rights due diligence, and how to consider effectively issues of gender, vulnerability and/or marginalization, recognizing the specific challenges that may be faced by indigenous peoples, women, national or ethnic minorities, religious and linguistic minorities, children, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers and their families.

National human rights institutions that comply with the Paris Principles have an important role to play in helping States identify whether relevant laws are aligned with their human rights obligations and are being effectively enforced, and in providing guidance on human rights also to business enterprises and other non-State actors.

Communication by business enterprises on how they address their human rights impacts can range from informal engagement with affected stakeholders to formal public reporting. State encouragement of, or where appropriate requirements for, such communication are important in fostering respect for human rights by business enterprises. Incentives to communicate adequate information could include provisions to give weight to such self-reporting in the event of any judicial or administrative proceeding. A requirement to communicate can be particularly appropriate where the nature of business operations or operating contexts pose a significant risk to human rights. Policies or laws in this area can usefully clarify what and how businesses should communicate, helping to ensure both the accessibility and accuracy of communications.

Any stipulation of what would constitute adequate communication should take into account risks that it may pose to the safety and security of individuals and facilities; legitimate requirements of commercial confidentiality; and variations in companies’ size and structures.

Financial reporting requirements should clarify that human rights impacts in some instances may be “material” or “significant” to the economic performance of the business enterprise.


4. States should take additional steps to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that are owned or controlled by the State, or that receive substantial support and services from State agencies such as export credit agencies and official investment insurance or guarantee agencies, including, where appropriate, by requiring human rights due diligence.



States individually are the primary duty-bearers under international human rights law, and collectively they are the trustees of the international human rights regime. Where a business enterprise is controlled by the State or where its acts can be attributed otherwise to the State, an abuse of human rights by the business enterprise may entail a violation of the State’s own international law obligations. Moreover, the closer a business enterprise is to the State, or the more it relies on statutory authority or taxpayer support, the stronger the State’s policy rationale becomes for ensuring that the enterprise respects human rights.

Where States own or control business enterprises, they have greatest means within their powers to ensure that relevant policies, legislation and regulations regarding respect for human rights are implemented. Senior management typically reports to State agencies, and associated government departments have greater scope for scrutiny and oversight, including ensuring that effective human rights due diligence is implemented. (These enterprises are also subject to the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, addressed in chapter II.)

A range of agencies linked formally or informally to the State may provide support and services to business activities. These include export credit agencies, official investment insurance or guarantee agencies, development agencies and development finance institutions. Where these agencies do not explicitly consider the actual and potential adverse impacts on human rights of beneficiary enterprises, they put themselves at risk – in reputational, financial, political and potentially legal terms – for supporting any such harm, and they may add to the human rights challenges faced by the recipient State.

Given these risks, States should encourage and, where appropriate, require human rights due diligence by the agencies themselves and by those business enterprises or projects receiving their support. A requirement for human rights due diligence is most likely to be appropriate where the nature of business operations or operating contexts pose significant risk to human rights.

5. States should exercise adequate oversight in order to meet their international human rights obligations when they contract with, or legislate for, business enterprises to provide services that may impact upon the enjoyment of human rights.



States do not relinquish their international human rights law obligations when they privatize the delivery of services that may impact upon the enjoyment of human rights. Failure by States to ensure that business enterprises performing such services operate in a manner consistent with the State’s human rights obligations may entail both reputational and legal consequences for the State itself. As a necessary step, the relevant service contracts or enabling legislation should clarify the State’s expectations that these enterprises respect human rights. States should ensure that they can effectively oversee the enterprises’ activities, including through the provision of adequate independent monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

6. States should promote respect for human rights by business enterprises with which they conduct commercial transactions.



States conduct a variety of commercial transactions with business enterprises, not least through their procurement activities. This provides States – individually and collectively – with unique opportunities to promote awareness of and respect for human rights by those enterprises, including through the terms of contracts, with due regard to States’ relevant obligations under national and international law.


7. Because the risk of gross human rights abuses is heightened in conflict-affected areas, States should help ensure that business enterprises operating in those contexts are not involved with such abuses, including by:

(a) Engaging at the earliest stage possible with business enterprises to help them identify, prevent and mitigate the human rights-related risks of their activities and business relationships;

(b) Providing adequate assistance to business enterprises to assess and address the heightened risks of abuses, paying special attention to both gender-based and sexual violence;

(c) Denying access to public support and services for a business enterprise that is involved with gross human rights abuses and refuses to cooperate in addressing the situation;

(d) Ensuring that their current policies, legislation, regulations and enforcement measures are effective in addressing the risk of business involvement in gross human rights abuses.



Some of the worst human rights abuses involving business occur amid conflict over the control of territory, resources or a Government itself –where the human rights regime cannot be expected to function as intended. Responsible businesses increasingly seek guidance from States about how to avoid contributing to human rights harm in these difficult contexts. Innovative and practical approaches are needed. In particular, it is important to pay attention to the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, which is especially prevalent during times of conflict.

It is important for all States to address issues early before situations on the ground deteriorate. In conflict-affected areas, the “host” State may be unable to protect human rights adequately due to a lack of effective control. Where transnational corporations are involved, their “home” States therefore have roles to play in assisting both those corporations and host States to ensure that businesses are not involved with human rights abuse, while neighboring States can provide important additional support.

To achieve greater policy coherence and assist business enterprises adequately in such situations, home States should foster closer cooperation among their development assistance agencies, foreign and trade ministries, and export finance institutions in their capitals and within their embassies, as well as between these agencies and host Government actors; develop early-warning indicators to alert government agencies and business enterprises to problems; and attach appropriate consequences to any failure by enterprises to cooperate in these contexts, including by denying or withdrawing existing public support or services, or where that is not possible, denying their future provision.

States should warn business enterprises of the heightened risk of being involved with gross abuses of human rights in conflict-affected areas. They should review whether their policies, legislation, regulations and enforcement measures effectively address this heightened risk, including through provisions for human rights due diligence by business. Where they identify gaps, States should take appropriate steps to address them.

This may include exploring civil, administrative or criminal liability for enterprises domiciled or operating in their territory and/or jurisdiction that commit or contribute to gross human rights abuses. Moreover, States should consider multilateral approaches to prevent and address such acts, as well as support effective collective initiatives.

All these measures are in addition to States’ obligations under international humanitarian law in situations of armed conflict, and under international criminal law.


8. States should ensure that governmental departments, agencies and other State-based institutions that shape business practices are aware of and observe the State’s human rights obligations when fulfilling their respective mandates, including by providing them with relevant information, training and support.



There is no inevitable tension between States’ human rights obligations and the laws and policies they put in place that shape business practices. However, at times, States have to make difficult balancing decisions to reconcile different societal needs. To achieve the appropriate balance, States need to take a broad approach to managing the business and human rights agenda, aimed at ensuring both vertical and horizontal domestic policy coherence.

Vertical policy coherence entails States having the necessary policies, laws and processes to implement their international human rights law obligations. Horizontal policy coherence means supporting and equipping departments and agencies, at both the national and subnational levels, that shape business practices – including those responsible for corporate law and securities regulation, investment, export credit and insurance, trade and labour – to be informed of and act in a manner compatible with the Governments’ human rights obligations.

9. States should maintain adequate domestic policy space to meet their human rights obligations when pursuing business-related policy objectives with other States or business enterprises, for instance through investment treaties or contracts.



Economic agreements concluded by States, either with other States or with business enterprises – such as bilateral investment treaties, free trade agreements or contracts for investment projects – create economic opportunities for States. But they can also affect the domestic policy space of Governments. For example, the terms of international investment agreements may constrain States from fully implementing new human rights legislation, or put them at risk of binding international arbitration if they do so. Therefore, States should ensure that they retain adequate policy and regulatory ability to protect human rights under the terms of such agreements, while providing the necessary investor protection.

10. States, when acting as members of multilateral institutions that deal with business-related issues, should:

(a) Seek to ensure that those institutions neither restrain the ability of their member States to meet their duty to protect nor hinder business enterprises from respecting human rights;

(b) Encourage those institutions, within their respective mandates and capacities, to promote business respect for human rights and, where requested, to help States meet their duty to protect against human rights abuse by business enterprises, including through technical assistance, capacity-building and awareness-raising;

(c) Draw on these Guiding Principles to promote shared understanding and advance international cooperation in the management of business and human rights challenges.



Greater policy coherence is also needed at the international level, including where States participate in multilateral institutions that deal with business related issues, such as international trade and financial institutions. States retain their international human rights law obligations when they participate in such institutions.

Capacity-building and awareness-raising through such institutions can play a vital role in helping all States to fulfil their duty to protect, including by enabling the sharing of information about challenges and best practices, thus promoting more consistent approaches.

Collective action through multilateral institutions can help States level the playing field with regard to business respect for human rights, but it should do so by raising the performance of laggards. Cooperation between States, multilateral institutions and other stakeholders can also play an important role.

These Guiding Principles provide a common reference point in this regard, and could serve as a useful basis for building a cumulative positive effect that takes into account the respective roles and responsibilities of all relevant stakeholders.



This is an interactive version of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, prepared by Shift to offer a format that you can read and use online. Use the numbers above to navigate between the introduction and each of the three pillars. You can also download the PDF by using the button on the header of this page and share this resource on social media. In addition, you’ll see some of our resources and tools referenced throughout, to help you explore how the principles can be put into practice. If this is your first time engaging with the UNGPs, you may also want to visit our UNGPs 101 page, an introductory resource. Happy reading!

The Special Representative annexed the Guiding Principles to his final report to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/17/31), which also includes an introduction to the Guiding Principles and an overview of the process that led to their development.

The Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles in its resolution 17/4 of 16 June 2011.

General principles

These Guiding Principles are grounded in recognition of:

  • States’ existing obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • 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;
  • The need for rights and obligations to be matched to appropriate and effective remedies when breached.

These Guiding Principles apply to all States and to all business enterprises, both transnational and others, regardless of their size, sector, location, ownership and structure.

These Guiding Principles should be understood as a coherent whole and should be read, individually and collectively, in terms of their objective of enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights so as to achieve tangible results for affected individuals and communities, and thereby also contributing to a socially sustainable globalization.

Nothing in these Guiding Principles should be read as creating new international law obligations, or as limiting or undermining any legal obligations a State may have undertaken or be subject to under international law with regard to human rights.

These Guiding Principles should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner, with particular attention to the rights and needs of, as well as the challenges faced by, individuals from groups or populations that may be at heightened risk of becoming vulnerable or marginalized, and with due regard to the different risks that may be faced by women and men.

Leadership & Governance Indicators of a Rights-Respecting Culture (Beta)



We’ve made important progress since we first published a beta version of our Leadership & Governance Indicators, in December 2019. We have now focused all of the governance indicators on the role of boards or equivalent senior governing bodies. We’ve also refined the indicators to a more concise list of ten governance indicators and twelve leadership indicators. Our next step is to develop supporting resources to enable boards, executives and investors to apply the indicators.


This resource provides a menu of indicators of leadership and governance that help evaluate a company’s progress towards building a rights-respecting culture.

The primary intended users of the resource are:

  • Business leaders seeking to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their company leadership, governance and culture with regard to respect for human rights;
  • Investors and civil society organizations seeking to strengthen their analysis, strategies and engagement with companies regarding progress towards respect for human rights.

Making Rights-Respecting Business Decisions in a COVID-19 World

Everywhere, human rights are at risk from the impacts of COVID-19. People around the world fear for their life and healthlivelihoodscivil liberties and privacy, to name just a few issues. At the same time, many businesses are facing existential threats, as they seek to survive or adapt to a new and unprecedented reality. As they make painful decisions, companies need to bring precision thinking to how their choices will impact the lives of people that work for, depend on, or are otherwise connected to their business.

This resource offers focuses on five approaches that companies can put in practice to ensure that they are making rights-respecting decisions:

  1. Apply the lens of vulnerability to prioritize action
  2. Involve relevant stakeholders in critical decision-making processes
  3. Use leverage with governments on policy responses
  4. Communicate your actions clearly
  5. Have honest decisions about risks that are baked into the business model

The last page on this resource is an annex that can help companies get started on identifying the increased or new human rights risks that arise as a consequence of the pandemic.

Land Rights

Land Rights

Land is life. Regardless of geographical location and socioeconomic status, each person relies on land, at least to some degree, for the provision of basic human needs such as clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, and safe housing to shelter in.

In many cases, the planet’s most vulnerable populations also directly rely on land in farming, hunting, gathering and carrying out other tasks for daily subsistence and in maintaining their and their families’ livelihoods and cultural identities.

Almost 75% of the world’s poor are affected directly by land degradation.

Business activities can have a wide range of impacts on people in relation to land. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[a]n increasing number of people are forcibly evicted or displaced from their land to make way for large-scale development or business projects, such as dams, mines, oil and gas installations or ports.” What’s more, “[i]n many countries the shift to large-scale farming has also led to forced evictions, displacements and local food insecurity, which in turn has contributed to an increase in rural to urban migration and consequently further pressure on access to urban land and housing.”

Land quality is closely linked to a healthy environment and sustainable access to natural resources. As such, land degradation connected to private sector activities can have significantly negative and widespread effects on people, for instance due to higher levels of water and air pollution or lack of access to firewood and other essential energy sources.

Access to, use of and control over land directly affect people’s enjoyment of their human rights. For example, “[f]or many people, land is a source of livelihood, and is central to economic rights. Land is also often linked to peoples’ identities, and so is tied to social and cultural rights.” Moreover, “the human rights aspects of land affect a range of issues including poverty reduction and development, peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, disaster prevention and recovery, urban and rural planning, to name but a few. Emerging global issues, such as food insecurity, climate change and rapid urbanization, have also refocused attention on how land is being used, controlled and managed by States and private actors.”

Approximately 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, including around 70 million indigenous people.

Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), land-related human rights issues are of particular concern in the context of business impacts on indigenous populations. For instance, UNDRIP and other frameworks such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards require the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples for business activities that pose actual or potential impacts on their land and associated human rights.

As illustrated above, and depending on the specifics of the relevant corporate initiative, addressing land rights in the context of business activities may contribute to the achievement of an array of the Global Goals, including:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere[i]
  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture[ii]
  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages[iii]
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls[iv]
  • Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all[v]
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all[vi]
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries[vii]
  • Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable[viii]
  • Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns[ix]
  • Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts[x]
  • Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development[xi]
  • Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss[xii]
  • Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels[xiii]

So, how are companies currently supporting a world in which these goals can become a reality – a world in which land-related human rights are respected across all areas of business activity?

Examples illustrated by the case studies below include:

These case studies explore each of these innovative and evolving models in more detail. Each case study captures publicly available information on the initiative, alongside experiences and opinions from various actors involved.

The summaries do not claim to give a definitive account of a specific initiative or of all perspectives on that case study; instead, they are intended to serve as illustrative examples of how action toward corporate respect for human rights can make a critical contribution to the achievement of various goals and targets under the SDGs.

Key Takeaways on Land Rights

Individual Company Action

Individual Company Action

  1. Legally binding agreements between the company, affected rights-holders, and relevant government authorities can provide clear parameters, valuable oversight mechanisms and robust accountability structures that aid in ensuring respect for land-related human rights.
  2. A willingness to participate in new multi-stakeholder models can complement existing initiatives, address important gaps in current implementation efforts and place a company at the forefront of innovative efforts.
  3. Working hand-in-hand with community representatives in formalized ways can bridge cultural and other contextual gaps when it comes to local engagement and relationship building around sensitive issues such as land rights.
  4. Affected stakeholders may require support in order to effectively and meaningfully engage in consultation processes that are required or otherwise necessary to address land-related risks and impacts. Depending on context, such support might be in the form of financial resources, formal employment or expert guidance, and it may come from business where there is openness from stakeholders.
  5. Prioritizing meaningful stakeholder engagement early and often can assist a company in avoiding any escalation of land-related conflicts or other challenges throughout the lifespan of a project. This may include early land tenure diagnoses to enhance the company’s understanding of land rights in the project area before entering into easements or purchases.

De Beers and the Snap Lake Environmental Monitoring Agency

Supporting community-based oversight bodies to address Aboriginal rights

The challenge

The Northwest Territories (NWT) province in Canada is one of two jurisdictions in the country where Aboriginal peoples are in the majority, constituting slightly more than 50% of the population. The region’s geographical resources include diamonds, gold, natural gas and petroleum, all of which have attracted extractive companies to the area since the early 1900s.

While the mining and oil and gas industries have brought economic growth and job opportunities to the NWT at various stages, significant challenges have arisen in terms of preserving the land and natural resource rights of the Aboriginal population throughout the course of business activities.

“When we talk about ‘Land’ in the Northwest Territories, it’s with a capital ‘L.’ Land here means more than just actual territory. It’s about wildlife, water, air quality, entire ecosystems, and livelihoods for the people who live on that land. All of this depends on the integrity of the land; and there are deep cultural connections to the natural resources connected to both the land and the environment.”

Alex Power, Yellowknives Dene First Nation

The response 

Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), land-related human rights issues are of particular concern in the context of business impacts on indigenous populations. In this context, three diamond mines in the NWT have taken a distinct approach in understanding and managing risks to surrounding communities when it comes to land and the environment in connection with mining operations. The licensing and registration process for each mine has involved legally binding environmental agreements between the respective diamond company, the federal government, the NWT government, and affected Aboriginal groups in the area.

Each agreement requires the establishment of a community-based, independent environmental monitoring agency (EMA) to study potential and actual environmental impacts, including those that relate to impacts on people, and facilitate activities around the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Aboriginal groups in relation to each mine. Each EMA acts as a public watchdog organization to ensure environmental regulatory compliance by the mining company and oversee inspection processes by government regulators.

The three EMAs in the NWT include: (1) the Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency (IEMA), covering Dominion Diamond Ekati Corporation’s Ekati mine; (2) the Environmental Monitoring Advisory Board (EMAB), covering Diavik Diamond Mines’ Diavik mine; and (3) the Snap Lake Environmental Monitoring Agency (SLEMA), covering De Beers Mining Canada’s Snap Lake mine. All three agencies facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogue and engagement across Aboriginal, company and government actors.

“Our approach is to engage early and often with potentially affected communities, going beyond the minimum requirements of the law to capture issues and concerns that aren’t yet fully addressed in legislation. We also share learnings from our experiences with SLEMA across the whole of the organization, integrating a better understanding of these issues across procurement, human resources, senior management and other functions.” 


Key aspects of the initiative

As an example of the EMA approach to addressing land-related human rights risks to Aboriginal groups associated with mining activities, De Beers and the work of SLEMA involves the following components and activities to date:

  1. Secretariat with an Executive Director and an Environmental Analyst. Led by the Secretariat, the agency is charged with: “(1) Reviewing and commenting on the design of monitoring and management plans and the results of these activities; (2) Monitoring and encouraging the integration of traditional knowledge of the nearby Aboriginal peoples into the mine’s environmental plans; (3) Acting as an intervener in regulatory processes directly related to environmental matters involving the Snap Lake Project and its cumulative effects; (4) Bringing concerns of the Aboriginal peoples and the general public to De Beers Canada Mining Inc. and the government; (5) Keeping Aboriginal peoples and the public informed about Agency activities and findings; and (6) Writing an Annual Report with recommendations that require the response of De Beers Canada Mining Inc. and/or government.”

“De Beers has been very proactive in its engagement with SLEMA. Our assessment is that they want to do a good job and have this be a positive case study that they can learn from. They’re quite focused on engagement and want the project to be wrapped up nicely. They place particular importance on the role of SLEMA in bringing traditional knowledge into the picture and incorporating this information in the company’s decision-making processes.

De Beers and other companies must understand that, if they want to do business in these types of regions, they have to do it in collaboration with the impacted communities. The SLEMA model is a smart approach that should be replicated, synchronized, adequately resourced and shared wherever possible.” 

Philippe di Pizzo, Executive Director, SLEMA
  1. Agency board comprised of eight representatives from the four signatory Aboriginal groups, including the Tli Cho Government, Lutsel k’e Dene First Nation, Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and the North Slave Metis Alliance. The board “strives to involve Aboriginal traditional knowledge and conventional science in its assessment of mining activities and environmental reports submitted by De Beers and government inspectors.”
  2. Technical panel made up of scientific experts who are familiar with the NWT and who have reviewed the mine’s annual reports, wildlife monitoring program, Aquatic Effects Monitoring Program Design Plan, and the Interim Closure and Reclamation Plan.
  3. Traditional Knowledge (TK) panel comprised of Elders from the affected Aboriginal groups that have hunted, trapped and lived in the area of the mine site. The TK panel provides “advice on water and fisheries issues and wildlife and habitat issues.” The group has a particular focus on the mine’s current closure activities and on ensuring that this stage of the project is monitored for the long-term stability of the land once the company leaves.

“It is incredibly important to have an independent oversight body for these types of business projects, where surrounding communities are impacted in numerous ways. It’s really key for Aboriginal groups to have an expert body to go to, because we’re under-resourced, particularly where multiple projects require our consultation and participation. These oversight bodies also carry a lot of weight in terms of credibility as they are directed by multiple groups, maintain full independence and blend scientific and traditional knowledge.” 


PepsiCo’s Participation in Oxfam’s FAIR Company-Community Partnerships

Piloting new models to address risks to land rights in the palm oil industry

The challenge 

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, with global use more than doubling over the past 15 years. Currently contained in approximately half of all consumer goods, this high-yielding agricultural commodity is found in packaged foods like margarine, ice cream and chocolate, as well as non-food products like body lotion, soap and biofuel.

The production of palm oil, while highly efficient as compared to all other oil crops, requires considerable swaths of land to be cleared for palm nurseries and plantations. Industry analysts have estimated that, in order to meet projected demand growth, global palm oil production “will need additional land that would be equivalent to the total area of Bangladesh” by 2050.

Land expansion is therefore key to the sector’s ability to keep up with this rapid increase in global demand. As a result, businesses along palm oil supply chains have long faced significant public criticism around the industry’s contributions to deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change and other environmental impacts. The sector has also been linked to significant human rights violations related to communities’ land and natural resource rights, food insecurity and land conflict. More recently, the production and processing of palm oil has been connected to reports of child labor, forced labor and other labor-related impacts.

With the aim of improving environmental and social sustainability in the industry, various palm industry stakeholders came together to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. The RSPO’s primary mechanism in working to achieve this goal is “a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.” With the immense amount of land involved in palm oil production, the RSPO’s focus thus far has been on certification among large-scale producers. At the same time, a significant amount of the sector’s land use is among smallholder farmers whom current certification mechanisms do not often reach and where risks to people and the environment are often among the most severe.

“The main issues linked to the palm oil sector are connected to the industry’s rapid growth, which requires additional land. The key risks and impacts are therefore around deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, but also around land grabs and land degradation, both of which directly impact people.

There is a particular lack of visibility around these issues when it comes to smallholders, who are bringing land assets to out-grower schemes that often fail to take an inclusive approach with smallholders and communities. These long-standing palm oil models are therefore characterized by exploitation and vast changes in land use without adequate social and environmental protections in place.”


The response

As a significant buyer of palm oil, PepsiCo is an important actor in addressing land-related human rights issues in the industry. The global food and beverage company has identified land rights as one of its salient human rights issues – the human rights at risk of the most severe impacts in the company’s operations and supply chains. PepsiCo’s salient human rights issues also include land-related issues such as the human right to water and vulnerable workers such as women.

A key milestone in PepsiCo’s approach to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil was its 2014 commitment to “zero tolerance” for land grabs across its supply chains following Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign and associated advocacy efforts. In the past year, PepsiCo has also made a number of time-bound implementation plans regarding its land rights commitments in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia.

As the largest buyer of palm oil in Mexico, the company has published a detailed analysis of land tenure risks and impacts and is now carrying out training on high conservation value (HCV) and high carbon stock (HCS) assessments, as well as separate capacity-building programs with the national association of palm oil mills and producers, smallholders and the federal government.

As part of these ongoing efforts, PepsiCo made a commitment in February 2018 to participate in Oxfam’s FAIR Company-Community Partnerships, which “offer an alternative business model that addresses sustainability issues holistically, ensuring respect for human rights, protection of the environment, and inclusive economic development through a multi-stakeholder, landscape-based approach.”

With an initial focus on Indonesia in its work with PepsiCo, the FAIR Partnerships project and its acronym stand for: (1) Freedom of choice, including free, prior and informed consent; (2) Accountability, including transparent agreements and grievance mechanisms; (3) Improvement and sharing of benefits, including improved yields and resource use efficiency; and (4) Respect for rights and the environment.

“When individuals and communities understand their rights regarding land and land tenure, it contributes to them being in a secure position where they are better able to claim the full range of their other human rights.We know that the challenges and issues in palm are systemic and we can’t change them alone. We need to collaborate with others, and the FAIR Partnerships project’s role as a multi-stakeholder platform is key in this regard.This is about further developing smallholder farmers and women, protecting the environment, and implementing our commitments on land rights. We’re building on our experience and learning in other sectors and geographies to maximize positive outcomes for people with this project.”

Natasha Schwarzbach, PepsiCo

Key aspects of the initiative

The FAIR Company-Community Partnerships “require the active participation of multiple global and national companies in the palm oil value chain, local government agencies, civil society groups, and farmer organizations.” Following the development of its conceptual model in 2014, the initiative was co-created with sector stakeholders for two demonstration projects that began initial field-level activities in 2017. As the project is taken to scale, it will reach multiple locations in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.

PepsiCo is the first buyer to publicly support the FAIR Company-Community Partnerships. In addition, the initiative has “engaged with numerous commodity sector and financial sector companies” including “plantation and mill companies, consumer goods manufacturers, commercial and development banks, and institutional and impact investors.” In these engagements, the project’s approach is to “collaborate with buyers and investors to engage and support palm oil producers who, in turn, engage smallholder suppliers and their host communities.”

“The FAIR Partnerships project is rethinking the ‘business as usual’ growth model for palm oil production, processing, and trade. It’s taking a holistic approach that zooms in on company-community relations to more effectively include smallholders and impacted communities in land use planning and development.The businesses involved, including PepsiCo, are key ambassadors for this new model as it builds on other collective, multi-stakeholder efforts such as RSPO. Our goal in the long term is to move from commitments around what you should not be doing as a company, for instance ‘zero tolerance’ for land grabs and other human rights violations, to alternative models that are more positive and focused on implementation.”


While the project remains in the early stages of implementation, the initiative is currently focused on demonstration projects that can then be scaled up based on “the proven business case, lessons learned, and impact measured.” The main components of these demonstration projects will include:

  • Participatory mapping and land use planning to “establish multi-functional mosaic landscapes in which stakeholders … arrive at optimal combinations of export crops such as palm oil, local food crops and conservation areas, notably forest and peat land” in order to enhance food security, safeguard land rights and diversify incomes. Local government authorities will be invited to support this landscape approach.
  • Direct engagement from palm oil companies to their host communities and small producers “at an early stage, when a company and host community start to (re-)consider relationships in palm oil production, especially at the moment of new plantings or replanting.”
  • Capacity building with local civil society organizations, service providers and government actors, as well as environmental organizations and other relevant platforms in order to align, and not duplicate, efforts.
  • Engagement with commodity markets and capital markets, which aim to “execut[e] their sustainable palm oil policies and [meet] sustainability objectives, notably taking deforestation out of their value chains and ensuring smallholder inclusion.”
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning systems that build out data collection methods and guide joint learning.

“FAIR Company-Community Partnerships bring together a wide range of salient human rights issues in the palm oil industry, providing an avenue for companies to address their most severe impacts more holistically. Implementation of commitments around land rights and corporate respect for human rights takes time and resources, but PepsiCo has taken an important step in committing to this project. The lessons they learn through their involvement will be valuable not only to PepsiCo but to wider industry efforts.”

Chloe Christman Cole, Oxfam America

Total’s Community Liaison Officer Approach to Dialogue with Indigenous Groups in Bolivia

Going beyond compliance to engage rights-holders early and often

The challenge

Land rights and land tenure issues have a particularly complex history in Bolivia. Rich in gas reserves, the landlocked country in western-central South America has undergone various stages of political turmoil due in no small part to conflict over who controls these natural resources and associated landholdings.

Since 2003, Total Exploration and Production Bolivia (TEPBO), a wholly-owned subsidiary of French oil and gas company Total, has explored natural gas projects in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, where several Guaraní indigenous territories are located.

“The operations in our business units may require land, for temporary or permanent use, including the possibility of physical and/or economic displacement and resettlement, which can, in turn, impact the human rights of neighboring communities. Depending on the specific societal context such as population density, land occupation and use, gender dimensions or livelihood patterns, there may be negative impacts on livelihoods.”


The company’s Incahuasi project, the development of which began in 2012, faced challenges in its relationship with Guaraní communities when, during excavation activities in preparation for the construction of a gas plant, archeological findings including artifacts and burial remains were uncovered. In response to these developments and corresponding tensions with local indigenous leaders, the company engaged a conflict transformation specialist, a historian specializing in Bolivian indigenous groups, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia to carry out cross-functional human rights workshops and awareness-raising among TEPBO staff.

“Access to land can be a significant issue, both in developed and developing countries, and it is a particularly important topic in areas where land is used by communities for farming, tourism or where there are cultural heritage concerns around land. It can also be especially complex in developing countries where land grabbing could be prevalent and where the land titling process is inefficient or not transparent. Our operations are sometimes located in these challenging environments. Some of our societal assessments and human rights assessments have shown that land access is a significant human rights issue in our operations.”

Total’s 2016 Human Rights Briefing Paper

The response

Under the umbrella of “human rights and local communities,” Total has identified its salient human rights – the human rights at risk of the most severe impacts in the company’s operations and supply chains – to include access to land. The oil and gas company’s salient issues also include land-related issues such as the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living since “[n]oise, dust, emissions and other impacts could have implications for the health of local communities, their livelihood and access to ecosystem services – i.e. services delivered by nature to people – like drinking water.”

In the context of its experience with the Incahuasi Project, TEPBO reexamined its community relationship approach in the country, particularly when it comes to communication and participatory strategies for social and environmental impact assessments. In 2015, TEPBO began environmental and social studies of exploration activities for its Azero Project, which covers a land block adjacent to the Incahuasi Project area. The Azero block contains a national park, presenting heightened risk for additional land-related human rights impacts and associated company-community conflict. 

In its exploration and production (E&P) business segment, Total has instituted a Community Liaison Officer (CLO) program as part of its efforts to address these salient issues. CLOs are “typically members of the local community, whose language they speak and whose customs they understand,” and they are directly employed by Total’s business units to maintain a dialogue with local communities impacted by the operations of the company or its affiliates.

Implementing new strategies based on its experience with the Incahuasi Project, TEPBO has subsequently taken a distinct approach in its Azero Project. The company’s new model incorporates a key role for its CLOs and recognizes the need for heightened measures that go beyond expectations laid out in national regulations when it comes to community consultation and participation around land.

“Our approach in the Azero project in Bolivia has required that we go beyond compliance of local legal standards and put in efforts to engage in meaningful consultation with affected communities and reach international expectations. For that purpose, initiating early engagement, by conducting in-house baseline social studies with a participatory approach and with a highly trained and well-respected CLO team, has been challenging at times but a very fruitful experience that we are now aiming to replicate elsewhere. We’ve observed the communities that we’ve worked with knowing and claiming their rights based on this experience and now asking their leaders and other companies to meet these higher standards as well. Another important component has been engaging external stakeholders like International Alert, CDA, and Oxfam to consistently challenge us, bring constructive insights, and foster the effectiveness of our social performance.”


Key aspects of the initiative

TEPBO’s CLO approach to dialogue with the Guaraní groups potentially affected by activities associated with the Azero project includes the following components:

  • Social baseline study at the start of exploration activities, conducted by a team of CLOs who were also social science professionals. The study took a participatory approach, involving a wide range of indigenous representatives, not just traditional leaders. The aim of the various in-person meetings that took place as part of the study was to provide early transparency around the project and multiple opportunities for input regarding potential impacts and mitigation measures.
  • Subsequent social impact assessments, carried out by consultants but also taking a participatory approach with the affected communities who identified and validated the potential impacts of the project.
  • Gap analysis by external experts around the concept of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), drawing from the expectations set out in the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards.
  • Building out of internal TEPBO “societal team” with experts in community engagement and relationship management in Bolivia, alongside ongoing engagement with key stakeholder groups such as local government authorities, local offices of international human rights organizations, and expert civil society organizations.

“Companies should start engaging potentially impacted communities as early as possible. Part of what we’ve learned from our experiences in Bolivia is that strong management systems around land and human rights issues need to be put in place at the exploration phase if risks and impacts are to be correctly understood and addressed. These issues can then be better integrated throughout decision-making processes and the company’s relationship with communities is then more likely to be positive throughout the course of the project. This engagement, early and often, is a smart investment, not simply an additional cost. For instance, our hiring of CLOs and investment in community relationship programs make good business sense in addition to being part of Total’s responsibility to respect human rights.”

Cynthia Trigo, Total

Gender Equality

Gender Equality

Women and girls comprise half of the planet’s population; their empowerment is essential in expanding economic growth and promoting social development in a sustainable way.

Gender inequality remains an everyday reality for the world’s women and girls. It can begin right at the moment of birth and continue throughout the course of a woman’s life.

Despite critical advances over the course of recent history, women in all countries and across all socioeconomic levels in society can face various forms of unfair treatment, including discrimination, harassment, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Other forms of abuse that are particularly prevalent in certain countries or cultural contexts include forced marriage, honor killings, deprivation of education, denial of land and property rights, and lack of access to work and to health care.

An estimated 1 out of every 3 women worldwide has experienced sexual or physical violence at home, in her community, and/or in the workplace.

Women may experience human rights abuses at different points in their working lives, including during recruitment, hiring, promotion and termination processes, as well as in daily interactions with colleagues and supervisors.

Outside of the workplace, women are often particularly vulnerable to the social and environmental impacts of business activities. For example, in many developing countries, women and girls are primarily responsible for fetching and hauling water. When company operations contaminate local sources, it is they who carry the burden of walking, often for hours, to the nearest substitute, which can prevent them from working or going to school.

According to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), gender “refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes.

Furthermore, gender equality “refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female.”

Globally, working women still earn 24% less than men on average.

Women and girls comprise half of the planet’s population; their empowerment is essential in expanding economic growth and promoting social development in a sustainable way. In many cases, the full participation of women in the workforce would add double-digit percentage points to national growth rates. Evidence from around the world shows that gender equality advancements have a ripple effect on all areas of sustainable development, from reducing poverty, hunger and even carbon emissions to enhancing the health, well-being and education of entire families, communities and countries. In fact, “[e]quality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development.”

Globally, working women still earn 24% less than men on average.

As illustrated in the figure above, and depending on the specifics of the relevant corporate initiative, addressing gender-related impacts in connection with business may contribute to the achievement of an array of the Global Goals, including:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere [v]
  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture [vi]
  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages [vii]
  • Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all [viii]
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls [ix]
  • Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all [x]
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all [xi]
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries [xii]
  • Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable [xiii]
  • Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts [xiv]
  • Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels [xv]

So, how are companies currently supporting a world in which these goals can become a reality – a world in which the rights of women and girls are respected across all areas of business activity?

Examples illustrated by the case studies below include:

The case studies explore each of these innovative and evolving models in more detail. Each case study captures publicly available information on the initiative, alongside experiences and opinions from various actors involved.

These summaries do not claim to give a definitive account of a specific initiative or of all perspectives on that case study; instead, they are intended to serve as illustrative examples of how action toward corporate respect for human rights can make a critical contribution to the achievement of various goals and targets under the SDGs.

Key Takeaways on Gender Equality

Individual Company Action

Individual Company Action

  1. Many human rights risks and impacts associated with women’s rights are intersectional, meaning that they do not exist separately from one another but are complexly interwoven. As such, gender issues may most effectively be addressed through holistic and coordinated approaches that recognize and link related issues (such as health, socioeconomic status, education, race, etc.) in activities and outreach.
  2. Programs that equip affected women to raise awareness themselves and provide resources to their peers may be an empowering means of expanding the scope, sustainability and accessibility of such programs.
  3. Buy-in from suppliers and behavior changes at the management level are key in enhancing the long-term impacts of initiatives that may be initiated by global brands but require sustained commitments from suppliers.
  4. Strategic partnerships with technical experts and peer companies within a sourcing country are instrumental in addressing systemic issues affecting women.
  5. Increased representation of women within worker committees and at all levels of a company may be essential in accurately reflecting gender-related risks and building the trust necessary to capture and address impacts.

Collective Action

Collective Action

  1. Economic empowerment and social security are integral to reducing negative business impacts on the human rights of women and maximizing outcomes for sustainable development.
  2. All actors along a global value chain can use and build their leverage in unique ways to facilitate change at the international, national and local levels.
  3. Collaborative efforts across a specific sector can inspire and equip affected women to collaborate and organize among themselves, potentially contributing to longer term advancements in addressing risks and impacts.
  4. Worker-driven standard-setting and feedback loops can capture risks and impacts in a way that traditional social policies and audit systems might not.
  5. Market enforcement mechanisms are instrumental in driving real change on the ground and can be embedded in initiatives in ways that both ensure accountability and create benefits for all actors involved.

Inditex’s Sakhi Health and Gender Equity Project

Implementing worker-centric strategies through peer educator programs

The challenge 

There are more than 1.5 million workers in Inditex’s supply chain, and the overwhelming majority of them are women. As such, a key objective of the global apparel brand is to “promote gender equality and women’s empowerment” across the company’s own staff and throughout its supply chain.

In India, women comprise up to 80% of the workforce in the factories that Inditex sources from. Most of these women are from rural areas with limited economic and educational opportunities. Human rights risks are particularly severe when it comes to their health and well-being. For instance, factory facilities may not be equipped to accommodate the reproductive health needs of women workers; and instances of harassment, abuse and discrimination inside and within the vicinity of factories may run high.

“The textile industry is a mainstay of the economy in many of the countries where we operate and women occupy most of the jobs in all stages of production. For this reason, Inditex’s supply chain is mostly female. And it is our duty and mission to contribute to all these workers having the best working conditions and enjoying the same opportunities as a man.”

 Inditex Annual Report 2016

The response

Inditex recognized these widespread challenges in its Indian supply chain and thus launched the Sakhi Health and Gender Equity Project in 2016 with the dual objectives of addressing women’s health risks in the workplace and preventing harassment or abuse.

The project is carried out in partnership with St. John’s National Academy of Health Services (Bangalore) and the Swasti Health Catalyst. The pilot phase of the program has so far been initiated at six factories within Inditex’s supply chain in India, covering a total of 4,290 workers to date.

Key aspects of the initiative 

Named after the Hindi word for “female friend,” the Sakhi project centers on a peer educator training program where senior women workers are trained to raise awareness at the factory level and educate their colleagues in the areas of health and gender equity.

“I know that these women [peer educators] will help another ten more, and that ten will help another ten more. So, I think this whole idea of creating awareness is cascading into something which is much bigger and not just restricted to this industry.”


The Sakhi Health component of the project is carried out with St. John’s National Academy of Health Services (Bangalore) in the following ways:

  • Awareness raising and sensitization workshops with workers, supervisors and factory management in the areas of reproductive and maternal health, nutrition, hygiene, HIV/AIDS, ergonomics and access to local health care services.

“The majority of workers at the factory level in the garment industry in South India are women; and many of them are coming from rural areas with very little information about their health and how to access basic health services. This is a risk for a company like Inditex that is sourcing from factories situated in South India. They have recognized this and are trying to skill up both workers and management through the peer educator program, which is periodically assessed and adapted.”

Dr. Naveen Ramesh, St. Johns Medical College

According to Inditex:

  • Two factories have initiated these programs so far, covering 740 workers.
  • Going forward, the project aims to bring together factory-level peer educators at periodic conferences to discuss challenges, share good practices and explore collective solutions.

The Sakhi Gender Equity component of the project is carried out with the Swasti Health Catalyst in the following ways:

  • Sensitization training of top management and production heads in 100% of Inditex’s suppliers in India in an effort to raise awareness of gender equality issues primarily among men in senior management at the manufacturing level.

“We want to make sure that management at the supplier level is accountable for the successful running of these programs. It has to be a supplier run and owned project for the solutions to be sustainable and we are thankfully seeing this happen as suppliers are more and more building, on their own, the activities of the Sakhi project into their production calendars going forward.”


  • A collaborative study with other brands working in India to identify and analyze worker needs. The study aims to advance worker well-being, better understand the challenges faced by migrant workers, and address issues related to gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination as a means of better informing factory-level programs.
  • Development of an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment guide with Swasti Health Catalyst based on consultations with suppliers and anonymous surveys of workers, supervisors, and management.

“We aim to find and implement solutions together with companies. There’s a way to achieve business objectives without compromising on values and human rights, and we’re trying to support businesses like Inditex in first understanding these issues accurately and then taking action in an informed way.”

Joseph Julian K.G. and Shankar A G, Swasti Health Catalyst
  • Strengthened systems to address sexual harassment grievances in factories by establishing policies and carrying out capacity building for management and members of worker committees.
  • Creation of Social Protection help desks at the factory level where workers can more easily access social protection resources and services.

According to Inditex:

  • 4 factories have initiated these programs so far, covering 3,550 workers.
  • 36 employment agencies and 327 peer educators have been trained in the prevention of gender-based abuse in employment practices.

“Our Sakhi related work is not just a project. It’s a movement, and it’s creating change both inside and outside of factories. We’re aiming to achieve this positive change toward gender equality and worker health in a culturally aware, progressive way by adding new dimensions every year and committing to the long-term work of changing mindsets and – most importantly – behaviors.”


Better Strawberries Group

Enhancing women’s social security and economic empowerment

The challenge 

At the break of dawn, thousands of women across the Larache province in northern Morocco pack into vans and travel long distances along rough roads to strawberry fields. There, they pick strawberries for eight hours or more, often for less than minimum wage and without the social security protections offered at the national level. They may never interact with farm owners and instead deal only with labor intermediaries (waqqaf) regarding recruitment, negotiation of wages, transportation, supervision and payment. They may face sexual harassment and verbal abuse from their supervisors who are mostly men. And some do not have protective gear to safeguard their health from the heavy use of pesticides in the berry industry nor regular access to hygienic toilets and clean water throughout their work days.

Morocco is one of the largest exporters of strawberries in the world; and the berry business is a key player in the Moroccan government’s national development plans. Field workers in this burgeoning industry are overwhelmingly women; an estimated 20,000 women are brought into strawberry jobs each year. While this growth has brought significant working opportunities for women in Morocco, it has also created mounting pressure on growers to rapidly hire for these labor-intensive positions without sufficient attention to, or concern for, putting decent working conditions in place.

“Morocco’s female strawberry pickers, in many cases, could possibly be regarded as a real and classic example of women’s low-paid labour facilitating greater profits for others … [W]hile the sector has been growing significantly and contributing to positive economic results, unfortunately working conditions within the supply chain have evolved in a ‘predominantly informal and precarious environment.’”

Sian Jones, Oxfam

The response

In 2011, after Oxfam began to highlight the increasingly precarious situation of women workers in the Moroccan strawberry industry, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Oxfam brought together most of the United Kingdom’s major supermarkets (including Marks & Spencer’s, Tesco and Sainbury’s) and berry importers to develop a plan of action regarding the issue. Termed the Better Strawberries Group, the initiative has thus far focused on the United Kingdom as one of the largest importers of fresh Moroccan strawberries. It has increasingly engaged with retailers and brands in France, Spain and Sweden as well.

“Most of the major retailers in the UK are ETI members and already working with key suppliers, so it made sense to build on these established relationships to try and address the issues faced by these women workers in Morocco. It’s important to look at all of the actors involved in these global supply chains, facilitating collaboration and momentum at the international level while engaging the government as well as producers, civil society and workers directly in Morocco.”


Shortly after the formation of the Better Strawberries Group, a stakeholder meeting was held in Morocco in 2012 where the British importers and supermarkets involved began the process of engaging Moroccan berry growers, their key associations, and civil society groups to further outline a collective 2012-2015 action plan.

“You buyers put pressure on quality with the products. You can also put pressure on the quality of the conditions for workers. Strawberry farm owners listen to you.”

Woman worker in the Moroccan strawberry industry

A unique analytical tool called SenseMaker was used in 2016 to capture the stories and insights of women workers in a way that empowered them, rather than demeaning or re-vicitimizing them. The open-ended “micro-narratives” shared by the workers through this methodology and the nuanced quantitative data captured alongside it have informed and supported the program.

Key aspects of the initiative 

The Better Strawberries Group and its affiliated programs have a distinct focus on improving the working conditions of strawberry pickers in Morocco who are women and the provision of social security services at the local level. Its activities and results to date are centered on the following three components:

  1. Campaign: In partnership with the National Social Security Fund (CNSS) in Morocco and local civil society coalitions, the initiative set up “caravan” tents near work sites, transport spots and villages to facilitate the formalization of strawberry pickers’ work. This involved assisting the women in obtaining national identification cards that allow them to sign formal work contracts, register for social security entitlements, and access free health care services. Producers were also increasingly registered with CNSS as part of the program to aid the Moroccan government in the enforcement of employer contributions to social security programs, as well as minimum wage and minimum age laws. Women with two children may receive up to 40% more income due to government contributions as part of the CNSS program.

According to Oxfam:

  • Approximately 16,100 women workers were reached as of 2014.
  • More than 1,400 women received national identification cards.
  • Over the course of the project, 14,027 individuals, including 9,205 women, received CNSS cards or verified existing cards.
  • The number of people registered with CNSS in the Larache province increased by 40% in 2012 and 70% in 2013.
  • The registration of workers with CNSS sits around 65% for the Larache province.
  • The Moroccan government has provided support staff for the registration caravans.
  • Employers have reported increased productivity and more stable workforces.
  1. ObservatoryEach campaign caravan also houses an “observatory” where local civil society organizations raise awareness of labor rights in Morocco, detect and collect labor rights violation cases, provide guidance and resources to the workers, and record instances for further processing. In 2016, the observatory collected 362 rights violation cases.

According to Oxfam:

  • Training on the Moroccan labor code and appropriate worker relations took place with 17 producers.
  • Agricultural transporters formed their own association; and sensitization training on safe and humane practices was carried out with government representatives.
  1. Association of women workers: With support from the Better Strawberries Group, women workers came together to form their own workers association, called “Al Karama,” which means “dignity” in Arabic. The group has been an active part of the various components of the program, liaising with the campaign caravans, carrying out labor rights training and awareness raising, collectively demanding safer transport and decent working conditions, and providing referrals to workers when they report specific issues. A second association, named “Al Amal,” was created in 2013 to ensure women workers’ representation among local authorities and local growers, helping to reduce women’s vulnerability by providing a direct link between workers.

“[The women workers] have acquired a legitimacy that now allows them to organize activities independently, thereby further strengthening the social fabric among those involved.”


The Better Strawberries Group has met regularly in London to discuss progress and challenges. Annual meetings take place in Morocco among the various stakeholders involved. Growers involved in the program have also joined a “Producers Platform” hosted by Oxfam to meet and discuss challenges and successes. They are in the process of developing a Code of Conduct that is drawn from the ETI’s base code.

Fair Food Program

Taking worker-driven standards and enforcement mechanisms to scale

The challenge

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to make headlines around the world every day. As these and other campaign efforts have made clear over many decades, some level of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, abuse and/or violence in the workplace is pervasive across industries and geographies.

The agriculture sector in the United States is no exception. In fact, women farmworkers face some of the worst gender inequality conditions in the country – it is estimated that 80% of farmworkers who are women are sexually harassed or assaulted in the course of their work.

“[Sexual harassment] is the dark underbelly of American agriculture.”John Esformes, Pacific Tomato Growers“Women are routinely – routinely – sexually harassed or assaulted in the fields.”

Greg Asbed, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Co-Founder of the Fair Food Program

On farms and in fields across the country, women farmworkers are often verbally or physically abused by supervisors or managers, frequently under threat of losing their jobs or the ability to work in the United States if they resist or report being raped, groped, grabbed, harassed, demeaned, discriminated against, or exposed to other such behaviors.

Moreover, “[w]omen farmworkers, just as their male counterparts, in fact suffer a wide range of degradations, including sub-standard wages, wage theft, physical and verbal abuse, gender and racial/ethnic discrimination, and high injury and fatality rates.”

The response 

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), built on a foundation of farmworker community organizing in Florida since 1993, established the Fair Food Program (FFP) in 2011.

CIW, farmworkers on participating farms, farmers and retail food companies implement the FFP. The Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) is the program’s independent monitoring body and the only dedicated third party oversight organization of its kind for agriculture in the United States.

The FFP “harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations,” including sexual harassment, violence, discrimination and abuse.

“The Fair Food Program is tackling gender-based violence and harassment alongside sub-poverty wages, forced labor, access to remedy, and many other human rights-related issues that have afflicted this industry in the past.”


The FFP currently boasts 14 participating buyers, including Yum Brands (which includes Taco Bell), Walmart, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Whole Foods, Burger King, and McDonald’s. Growers of 90% of Florida’s tomato production have signed on to the program. The FFP also involves strawberry and bell pepper farmers in Florida, as well as tomato growers across Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. In mid-2018, the FFP will be expanding into other crops in Texas.

Key aspects of the initiative

The components of the FFP make up what is called the “Worker-driven Social Responsibility” (WSR) model. The key FFP mechanisms and relevant data to date include:

  1. Legally binding Fair Food Agreements between participating buyers and CIW: These agreements require the buyer to contribute to the Fair Food Premium aspect of the program, outlined below. They also provide market enforcement provisions to uphold the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which goes beyond legal compliance to set a more robust industry standard around sexual harassment and abuse, as well as issues such as forced labor, child labor, wage theft, working hours, direct employment and decent working conditions, including shade tents, clean drinking water, regular bathroom breaks, safe transportation and an end to forced overfilling of buckets, which contributes to underpaying workers while adding to the physical strain of farm work.

“[The FFP] ends up being a win-win-win proposition. Farmworkers’ lives are improved – immeasurably – every day. The growers individually become better operations, with less risk. And buyers no longer have to worry about the possibility of another case coming out.We’re taking a business approach to human rights that is worker-driven and based on the principle that companies need to use their market power to improve people’s lives.

Our ‘Worker-driven Social Responsibility’ (WSR) model works, and it can be replicated across other industries and geographies if more and more businesses get involved. The WSR Network is supporting these efforts, spreading the model to other areas in the United States, such as with the Milk with Dignity program in Vermont, and even overseas, feeding into the Bangladesh Accord and tackling workers’ rights issues in the seafood industry in Southeast Asia.” 


  1. Fair Food Premiums: Outlined within the Fair Food Agreements, this mechanism commits participating buyers to pay a “penny per pound” premium on top of the regular price paid for tomatoes or other covered products. The premium is then passed through by farmers as a bonus on worker’s paychecks, which are monitored by the FFSC. This component of the FFP has been lauded as an innovative living wage initiative that recognizes that “workers who worry about putting the next meal on their family’s table are often too constrained by fear to be effective monitors and defenders of [their own] rights,” including those relating to gender equality. Since the FFP’s inception, over US$26 million have been added to farmworkers’ payrolls.
  2. Worker education: At the time of hire and throughout the growing season, each farmworker covered by the FFP receives training on the Fair Food Code of Conduct, including its zero tolerance policies on forced labor, child labor, sexual violence and abuse in the workplace. The CIW Worker Education Committee, which is comprised of farmworkers themselves, conducts worker-to-worker training that takes place on company time and with a company representative present to demonstrate support from the employer. To date, over 220,000 workers have received “Know Your Rights and Responsibility” materials (available in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole). CIW has educated nearly 52,000 workers face-to-face.
  3. Independent audits: Conducted by the FFSC, the independent and sometimes unannounced FFP audits involve extensive and ongoing document review and interviews with all levels of a farm’s management, from the boardroom to the field. Moreover, worker interviews take place with 50% or more of the workforce on any given farm, due in large part to auditors’ efforts to reach workers both in the fields and offsite, as auditors visit housing camps, ride buses and make themselves present at transport spots. Importantly, supervisors are not present when onsite interviews are conducted to ensure openness of workers in sharing challenges or concerns. Audit reports are then provided to the grower and to CIW. Over 20,000 workers have been interviewed as part of the FFP audit program. As of October 2017, the program has redressed 6,839 audit findings of non-compliance.
  4. Complaint resolution mechanism: In recognition that even unannounced audits are only a snapshot in time and acknowledging the right to remedy when human rights violations occur, the FFP includes a confidential complaints system that is independently run by the FFSC. This system centers on a toll-free, bilingual complaint line that FFSC investigators who know the relevant farms answer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The hotline information informs subsequent audit interviews and worker education programs. Since its start and covering around seven growing seasons so far, the program has resolved more than 2,000 complaints. Most complaints are resolved in less than two weeks and the vast majority in less than a month.

“We’ve received complaints and testimonies of hostile work environments, of supervisors asking for sexual favors in return for ensuring that this woman keeps her job. We’ve made sure that workers know that there are different avenues that they can take to make a complaint so that there isn’t any more sexual harassment in the fields.”

Lupita Aguila Arteaga, Fair Food Standards Council

When a complaint is submitted to the hotline, the FFSC investigates the situation either alone or in collaboration with the relevant grower, depending on the specifics of the situation, and then develops a corrective action plan for implementation by the farmer with support from FFSC. Whenever possible, resolutions of complaints are made known to the other workers to demonstrate a lack of retaliation for bringing complaints and to reconfirm the grower’s commitment to the program. The FFSC maintains a detailed database of complaints and corrective actions taken; an appeals mechanism is built into the system.

“In the instant information age, each brand is just one click away from being in the headlines for human rights violations. We’re holding the mirrors up to prevent the risk before it blows up in companies’ faces.In sexual assault and other cases, we’ve seen each mechanism of this program kicking in and working the way they’re supposed to. Only a program like this can give brands reassurance while at the same time ensuring the protection of workers that come forward with issues and early warnings. The headlines for the Florida tomato fields used to be ‘assault and slavery.’ Now, the industry is known as ‘the best work environment for agricultural workers in the entire United States.’”


  1. Market enforcement: In the event that a serious violation of the Fair Food Code of Conduct arises at the farm level via any of the above mechanisms, the participating grower must remedy the situation. If the grower fails to do so, it is suspended from the FFP and the participating brands will therefore no longer buy from that supplier until it gains reentry to the FFP. This “real market” incentive within the FFP is a key contributor to the fact that sexual harassment and abuse are now the exception, rather than the rule, throughout the Florida tomato industry and in the additional farms covered by the program.According to the FFSC, “These measures have brought an end to impunity for sexual violence and other forms of sexual harassment at Fair Food Program farms, where there have been zero cases of rape or attempted rape since the implementation of FFP standards in Season One. Cases of sexual harassment by supervisors with any type of physical contact have been virtually eliminated, with only one such case found since 2013.”

“The work that [the FFP] does makes you feel that you are not so alone in this country. I think many women now have more courage to speak and not remain silent.”