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Companies must know—and show—that they respect human rights in all their operations. With the new Responsible Business Conduct Strategy, the Canadian Government is calling on all Canadian companies working abroad to abide by these rules

Ever since the 1976 adoption of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, continuous progress has been seen on raising the importance of human rights in the international business sector, but also on the adoption of relevant national and international policies and standards that enforce respect for those rights. Despite this topic having been strongly recognized and prioritized by governments and corporations around the world, we have also witnessed unfortunate events that serve to remind us that the process of improving respect for human rights is never-ending.

One such unfortunate event was the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that killed 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500 workers employed in operations serving various global fashion companies. The tragedy became a symbol not only of the impact of the fashion industry, but of the carelessness of businesses seeking to turn a profit at the expense of workers’ human rights. The Rana Plaza disaster also led to progress – supported by the International Labor Organization – on labor law reform, labor inspections, workplace safety, and injury compensation for workers and their families. Furthermore, it reminded all stakeholders that there was a need to establish a new, international, legally-binding standard on human rights due diligence in global supply chains, based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In the absence of such a document, the UN Guiding Principles are still the most important document in that area.

The Guiding Principles closely connect human rights and the responsibilities of businesses, and define key elements of human rights due diligence. Under the Principles, businesses should ensure that they respect human rights in their own activities, but also in their business relations with their suppliers.

In today’s world, responsible companies use the Guiding Principles to differentiate themselves from their competitors, to improve their branding and build better relations and trust in the countries and communities in which they operate

The Guiding Principles were proposed by UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights John Ruggie, and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. The same resolution saw the UN Human Rights Council establish the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. Following the endorsement, this UN working group, consisting of five independent experts, was appointed to guide the dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

The UN Framework recognizes the duty of states (under international human rights law) to protect everyone within their territory and/or jurisdiction from human rights violations committed by business enterprises. As a result, the states are obliged to have effective laws and regulations in place to prevent and address business-related human rights abuses, and ensure access to effective resolution for those whose rights have been abused.

Since then, many countries, Canada included, have exerted considerable efforts to promote responsible business conduct and develop tools to help companies achieve these standards. In the previous stages, these rules focused on companies that work outside Canada in the garment, mining, and oil and gas sectors, but in the new document – the Responsible Business Conduct Strategy – the Canadian Government has broadened the scope of intervention to all companies.

As stated, businesses themselves have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate and whatever their size or industry. This means that they have to know either the actual or potential impacts of their operations, and to react preemptively or address existing adverse impacts.

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