National Human Rights Action Plan of the Federal Government: Respecting Human Rights Should Matter to any Business

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The German government is working on an action plan to implement the UN’s guidance on business and human rights. Is there a risk of legal liability arising for human rights violations occurring anywhere along the value chain?

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Three pillars define the responsibilities of states and companies: “Protect, Respect, Remedy”. Late in 2014, the German Federal government began the process of implementing these Guiding Principles in a national action plan. The outcome will be a document containing policy recommendations to the German Federal cabinet.

The elaborate multi-stakeholder process involved in-depth hearings on every individual field of action of the Guiding Principles. As it stands, the draft action plan could lead to serious changes in the way companies relate to their global supply chains. However, after the intervention of a few ministries called for a revision, the intra-ministerial consultation process has been prolonged.

Acknowledging existing business engagement

Throughout the multi-stakeholder process, the participating business and employers’ organisations – BDI, BDA, DIHK and ZDH – have consistently called for a better appraisal of the existing human rights engagement of German companies and for the support for businesses fulfilling their voluntary human rights obligations. This could be achieved by providing additional advice and more support. In contrast, introducing compulsory requirements on monitoring, harm prevention, and documentation along the entire supply chain should be avoided. Likewise, extraneous criteria for awarding public contracts, subsidies, and trade promotion should not be introduced. The additional bureaucratic burden would disadvantage German companies in international competition and is irreconcilable with the principles of trade law and liability law.