Are lawyers the key to getting businesses to improve on human rights?

Corporate lawyers have a role to play at getting companies to improve on human rights. Photo by: SalFalko / CC BY-NC

Winning over corporate lawyers may be critical to getting companies to adopt and implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Businesses that sign on to the principles agree to respect human rights, to avoid causing or contributing to negative human rights impacts in their activities and to address those activities as well as prevent or mitigate the impacts of products or services linked to their operations. To meet their responsibility, companies have to make a policy commitment, undertake a due diligence process to identify, prevent and mitigate how they address their impacts on human rights and provide remediation processes.

Lawyers are rarely the champions of public adoption of the human rights principles, said Mark Wielga, a partner at Temkin Wielga & Hardt.

A lawyer himself, Wielga said that often legal counsel can create roadblocks and encourage companies to temper language and not directly accept the principles out of fear that doing so could open the company up to additional liability, he said.

While some companies have signed onto the principles, which were endorsed in 2011, most of the progress so far has been on merely theoretical, and much of the practical work of implementing the policies remains to be done, Wielga and others stressed at an event about business and human rights in Washington, D.C. on Thursday hosted by global law firm Clifford Chance.

“The success of movement is still a jump ball,” Wielga said.

The event took a look at the role of lawyers in writing corporate adoption policies, discussed human rights impact assessments and looked at an example of a project where the company carried out a human rights assessment and policy.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.