Revised OECD Guidelines State that “Respect for Human Rights is the Global Standard of Expected Conduct” for Companies

On May 25, forty-two countries, including the 34 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ("OECD"), committed to promote an updated version of the OECD Guidelines of Multinational Enterprises.

The OECD Guidelines (.pdf) are a non-binding code of conduct containing recommendations for responsible business conduct in a global context. The countries that adhere to the Guidelines agree to promote the guidelines among the business sector. Notably, the revised OECD Guidelines reflect a new focus on business and human rights.

The Guidelines state explicitly that "[r]espect for human rights is the global standard of expected conduct for enterprises."  Respect for human rights means that companies "should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved" and should "[c]arry out human rights due diligence as appropriate to their size, the nature and context of operations and the severity of the risks of adverse human rights impacts." The Guidelines note that this due diligence can be included within broader enterprise risk management systems "provided that it goes beyond simply identifying and managing material risks to the enterprise itself to include the risks to rights-holders." 

 The Guidelines observe that 

Enterprises can have an impact on virtually the entire spectrum of internationally recognised human rights. In practice, some human rights may be at greater risk than others in particular industries or contexts, and therefore will be the focus of heightened attention. However, situations may change, so all rights should be the subject of periodic review. (emphasis added)

In the complex social, political, and economic contexts in which companies operate, risks to human rights are constantly fluctuating.  Human rights due diligence is not a one-time event, and while certain human rights may be the focus of greater attention depending on a company’s operating context, all internationally recognized rights should be considered as part of the due diligence process.

The new revisions to the OECD Guidelines reflect the tremendous influence and rapid adoption of the United Nations Framework for Business and Human Rights ("Protect, Respect, and Remedy"), which was put forward by the U.N. Special Representative for Business and Human Rights in 2008, and subsequently adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council.  The Guidelines were drafted in order to be aligned with the new Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which the U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to adopt later this month.

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