You cannot get lost if you don’t know where you are going

Corporate representatives often use the metaphor of being on a journey to describe the ongoing implementation process of human rights in their organizations. In fact, I’ve heard this expression so many times at public human rights events in the past year that I think it has become established jargon. But do businesses actually have a roadmap for their journey? Have they agreed on rules of the road?

The Economist Intelligent Unit recently published a report entitled “The Road from Principles to Practice:  Today’s Challenges for Business to Respecting Human Rights.” The report’s findings are based on a survey of over 853 senior corporate executives and in-depth expert interviews. The aim of the report is to explore the views of business worldwide on their responsibility to respect human rights and the ways in which these obligations are carried out.

The report contains several interesting insights. Most fundamentally, the large majority of executives agree that getting corporations systematically engaged in human rights is not just a temporary trend. 83% of them agree (74% of them strongly) that human rights are a matter not only for governments but also for business.

Survey responses from the Economist Intelligence Unit Report 

Survey responses from the Economist Intelligence Unit Report 

One finding, however, stands out. In response to the question “Which of the following, if any, are the biggest barriers your company faces in addressing human rights?” 30% of executives cite “Lack of understanding about what our responsibilities are in the area of human rights.”

To me, this is an alarming figure. How can corporations make progress on the implementation of human rights if they are unclear about what is expected from them? How can they be on a journey if they don’t know where they are going?

Clarifying what is expected of companies in a specific industry context is thus of paramount importance to advance the implementation of business and human rights in practice. Developing industry standards that make progress towards human rights measurable and traceable should be the frontier for human rights pioneers that claim to be on a journey.


Dorothée Baumann-Pauly is the Center's Research Director.