Globalization has significantly changed the world we live in, presenting new and complex challenges for the protection of human rights.
Economic players, especially companies that operate across national boundaries (trans-national companies), have gained unprecedented power and influence across the world economy.
This has not always benefited the societies in which they operate.
Amnesty International's research has highlighted the negative impact companies can have on the human rights of the individuals and communities affected by their operations.
Companies cause harm by directly abusing human rights, or by colluding with others who violate human rights. Despite this potential to cause significant harm, there are few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent corporate human rights abuses or to hold companies to account.
This means those affected by their operations – often already marginalized and vulnerable - are left powerless, without the protection to which they are entitled, or meaningful access to justice.
Global standards on business and human rights
Governments have the primary obligation to secure universal enjoyment of human rights and this includes an obligation to protect all individuals from the harmful actions of others, including companies.
However, frequently governments fail to regulate the human rights impact of business or ensure access to justice for victims of human rights abuses involving business.
Until now most companies’ engagement with human rights responsibilities has been through voluntary codes and initiatives. While some voluntary initiatives have a role to play, such voluntarism can never be a substitute for global standards on businesses' mandatory compliance with human rights.
These global standards should address the human rights responsibilities and obligations of both states and companies. As a minimum requirement, all companies should respect all human rights, regardless of the sector, country or context in which they operate.
What is Amnesty International doing?
Amnesty International’s work on economic players, including trans-national companies and international financial organizations, has developed in recognition of the power and influence they exert over states and international institutions, and the impact they have on human rights.
Through research and analysis, Amnesty International aims to highlight human rights abuses in which companies are implicated and how governments fail to prevent these abuses or hold companies to account when they occur.
The organization is campaigning for global standards on business and human rights and stronger legal frameworks at both national and international level to hold companies to account for their human rights impact.
Amnesty International asks companies to promote respect for human rights, including by:
- Using their influence in support of human rights,
- Including a specific commitment to human rights in their statements of business principles and codes of conduct,
- Producing explicit human rights policies and ensuring that they are integrated, monitored and audited across their operations and beyond borders,
- Putting in place the necessary internal management systems to ensure that human rights policies are acted upon.
Amnesty International also calls on companies to make respect for human rights an integral component of their business operations, including through their dealings with other companies, partners, associates, subsidiaries, suppliers and government officials.
At the heart of Amnesty International’s concerns is the individual whose human rights may come under threat from the actions or inactions of economic players.
We strive to bring their voice to the debate in the hope that meaningful long-term solutions are firmly rooted in the real-life experience of those who fall victim to human rights abuses by corporate actors.
Give one reason Amnesty International should be working on this?
More than 7,000 people died when toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, and a further 15,000 people died in the following years.
Around 100,000 people continue to suffer from chronic and debilitating illnesses caused by the gas leak. Stockpiles of toxic waste were left in the abandoned site and neither the company nor the Indian government have, even to this day, cleaned up the site to prevent further contamination.
Despite the devastating impact on people’s lives, no-one has been held to account for the gas leak and the ensuing contamination.
The lack of effective regulation and accountability systems has meant court cases drag on and corporations and their leaders continue to evade accountability for thousands of deaths, widespread ill-health and ongoing damage to livelihoods.
With no effective national or supra-national legal options, more than two decades on, the survivors of Bhopal are still waiting for meaningful justice.
Unless effective regulation of companies’ impact on human rights is secured nationally and beyond borders, and a system that guarantees accountability for human rights abuses and allows victims effective access to justice is established, the serious failures of justice witnessed in the Bhopal case and elsewhere will continue to occur.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls upon every individual and every organ of society – which includes companies – to protect and promote human rights.
- In August 2003, the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights approved the UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Trans-national Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (also known as the UN Norms). This document represents the most authoritative and comprehensive set of standards on business and human rights issued to date.
- In August 2005, the UN Secretary General appointed Professor John Ruggie to be Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on business and human rights.
This work is part of Amnesty International's Demand Dignity campaign, which aims to end the human rights violations that drive and deepen global poverty. The campaign will mobilize people all over the world to demand that governments, corporations and others who have power listen to the voices of those living in poverty and recognise and protect their rights. For more information visit the Demand Dignity section.