The Emergence of Business and Human Rights in the EU’s External Relations

by | Mar 3, 2015

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About Gosia Pearson

Dr Gosia Pearson is a policy advisor on humanitarian aid in the European Commission. She is also a research associate in the Law Faculty at Oxford University (


Gosia Pearson, “The Emergence of Business and Human Rights in the EU’s External Relations” (OxHRH Blog, 27 February 2015) <> [Date of Access]

Globalization has provided for numerous opportunities for enterprises to contribute to the respect of human rights. At the same time, it also increases the risks of business involvement in human rights violations. The European Union sought to address these challenges in its internal policies and in relations with third countries and organisations.

The European Union (EU) played a key role in the development of the UN Framework and Guiding Principles on business and human rights. There were several factors that influenced the EU’s active involvement in this process, including a growing pressure from the European Parliament and civil society, an opportunity to promote its own standards on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) developed in 2006, and a need to fulfil its traditional role in shaping the human rights agenda at the UN. At the same time, the UN Framework and Guiding Principles increased the prominence of business and human rights as part of a wider EU CSR agenda, as reflected in “A renewed EU strategy 2011-14 for Corporate Social Responsibility” and concrete actions that followed to implement it.

Business and human rights also emerged as a topic of the EU’s external policy on human rights. It became part of the EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy. The Action Plan, annexed to the document, foresaw three actions for completion by the end of 2014, namely: 1) to ensure implementation to the Commission Communication on CSR, in particular by developing and disseminating human rights guidance for three business sectors and for small and medium-sized enterprises; 2) to publish a report on EU priorities for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles; and 3) to develop national plans for EU Member States on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. These commitments have been only partially implemented.

The guidance for three sectors (information and communication technologies, oil and gas, as well as employment and recruitment agencies) and for medium and small enterprises were published in 2013 and 2012, respectively. While the two sets of guides are important developments as they offer vital support to enterprises, there was no specific dissemination campaign among companies either within the EU or in relations with third countries. Instead they were promoted at events, such as the Business and Human Rights Forum, or in human rights dialogues with third countries. It is difficult to measure the concrete impact of the guides due to lack of information on whether companies use them in formulating their own CSR policies and operations. However, an assessment is possible based on a survey carried out with 200 randomly selected large companies, among which just five referred to the UN Guiding Principles. Size and country of origin of companies were the most important contributing factors in this respect.

The report on the EU priorities for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles has been delayed several times and has not yet been published. It will not establish EU priorities but will instead present the state of play of the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles, and what should be done next. Due to the division of competences within the EU, the report will only cover EU institutions, omitting an assessment of Member States’ efforts.

Only four Member States finalized their national plans on business and human rights: UK, Netherlands, Italy and Denmark. Spain and Finland prepared drafts. Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal and Sweden signalled they would develop such plans, and the Czech Republic and Malta plan to include business and human rights in their national plans on CSR. According to a recently published European Commission compendium on Member States’ CSR policies, different inter-related factors determined development of national action plans, such as: the structure and level of development of national economies, the involvement of stakeholders in policy design, and division of labour among ministries on CSR.

The EU’s external policy on business and human rights is still emerging. If there is a second Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, the activities in this field should be more concrete and forward looking. While ensuring coherence among EU internal and external policies is important and should be maintained, the European External Action Service could become more proactive in stepping up the international dimension of internal policies, for example, through more systematic inclusion of human rights dialogue and the funding of projects.

The views expressed in this contribution are those of the author, who works at the European Commission, and do not necessarily reflect the views of EU institutions and services. A fuller assessment of the implementation of the business and human rights commitments in the EU human rights strategy will be published in 2014 European Yearbook on Human Rights.

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