By Melissa J. Anderson

The UN recently released a draft set of Guiding Principles outlining the appropriate behavior of corporations and other business enterprises regarding the issue of human rights.

The draft, “Guiding Principles for the Implementation of the United Nations’ ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” was produced by John Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises. According to Ruggie, until recently States had more control over the businesses operating on their soil. Since States are tasked with protecting the human rights of their citizens, it was their responsibility to ensure that companies operating within their borders did not infringe upon human rights.

But, wrote Ruggie, presently, the case has become much more complicated. He writes:

“States have been slow to address the more systemic challenge of fostering human rights-respecting corporate cultures and conduct. State practices exhibit substantial legal and policy incoherence and gaps. The most common gap is the failure to enforce existing laws, although for vulnerable and marginalized groups, there may be inadequate legal protection in the first place.”

In order to remedy this, Ruggie says that multinational companies and other business enterprises should be subject to guidelines which seek to prevent human rights abuses or remedy them. He says:

“The corporate responsibility to respect human rights constitutes a standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises. It exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfill their human rights duties, and does not diminish those duties. 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.”

Going forward, companies will be expected to uphold the human rights of those companies in which they operate, and similarly, may be responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain.

But while this draft has been released, many companies are already working to ensure human rights for individuals in the companies in which they do business. Ruggie commends companies which have already made significant CR efforts toward human rights, and says that attention to this issue is growing in the business community. But, he says, more work is needed. “… these developments have not acquired sufficient scale to reach a tipping point of truly shifting markets.”

The past year or two has seen an explosion in discussion around corporate responsibility. But, Ruggie says, it’s not enough to create significant change.

Will the UN’s guidelines compel companies to improve human rights records? On the other hand, perhaps what is needed is a peer pressure approach – similar to the UN Global Compact – hundreds of business leaders publicly taking a stand on human rights issues issues.

Both of these measures miss a huge reason to work harder to improve human rights, though. Employee interest in the issue. Today’s high performers don’t want to work for companies with a track record of human rights abuses. As the market for these high performing individuals becomes more heated in the coming years, we can expect to see better corporate responsibility work on behalf of companies, simply as a matter of attracting and retaining top talent.