Setting the tone at the top: the importance of policy commitments to human rights

For many businesses on the journey to ensuring respect for human rights, publicly committing to respect human rights is an important first step. This is emphasized in Principle 15 of the United Nations Guiding Principle on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs):

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 policy commitment to meet their responsibility to respect human rights.

By making a public commitment to respecting human rights, a company sets the tone at the top of the business and demonstrates to all stakeholders that management considers respect for human rights a minimum standard for conducting business with legitimacy and social license. The company also sets an expectation of how staff and business partners should act, triggering the development of internal procedures and systems necessary to meet the commitment in practice, such as training and monitoring processes. Policy commitments are therefore an essential first step towards embedding respect for human rights into the values of the enterprise.

Policy commitments

Given the central role of human rights commitments and their trickle-down effect on business, the way they are disclosed is important. As emphasised by the UNGPs, commitments should be made in a policy document to ensure that they will impact a company’s processes, procedures, and expectations. This is because policy documents are approved at the most senior level of the business, guide a company’s activities and values, and are more long-lasting than other frequently updated documents, making them a constant reference point for employees, business partners and wider stakeholders. According to the Principle 16 of the UNGPs:

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 is why WBA’s Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) and Core Social Indicators, in alignment with the UNGPs, require companies to disclose a policy statement committing to respect human rights. The statement should be in a policy that:

  • is approved at the most senior level of the business
  • determines the company’s actions and is reflected in operational policies and procedures to embed the commitment throughout the company
  • sets out the company’s human rights expectations of personnel and/or business partners
  • is publicly available and communicated internally and externally.

Other corporate disclosure

While human rights commitments are ideally disclosed in policy documents, there is great value in other types of corporate disclosure such as in human rights or sustainability reports and on company webpages. These types of disclosures provide more insight into how the company is embedding respect for human rights across the organisation by providing information on, for example, human rights due diligence processes, accountability for human rights, and examples of actions taken. By building on the essential commitment from the top disclosed in policies, wider reporting on human rights can demonstrate, to all stakeholders, how the company is fulfilling its responsibility to respect human rights in practice.

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