Business & Human Rights

Having regard to, and responsibility for, human rights is now an assumed part of doing business, by virtue of a range of legal obligations, soft law standards and community and stakeholder expectations.

In the last decade there has been immense movement in the business and human rights field, both at the domestic and international levels. As a result, companies are subject to increasing human rights-related obligations and expectations. Failure by businesses to align with accepted human rights standards can have significant legal, commercial and reputational consequences and can expose businesses to a range of risks, including regulatory risk, third party litigation risk, financing risk and operational risk. These risks are greater for those businesses which operate, or which have customer bases, in 'higher risk' jurisdictions where there is weak governance or rule of law.

Against this backdrop, we have seen a rise in shareholder activism, challenges to licence to operate and heightened financing expectations in connection with human rights issues. We have also seen greater engagement by governments around the world, including in Australia, in relation to international standards and guidance designed to prevent and address breaches of international human rights by companies.

Today's businesses need to be ready to operate and succeed in this environment. The Allens business and human rights team can position you to understand how human rights issues arise in your business, what your obligations are and how to manage associated risks to your day to day operations.

We have unrivalled expertise advising on business and human rights issues, having assisted:

  • the Australian Government complete a stocktake on the implementation of the UNGPs;
  • the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights with the development of the UNGPs;
  • the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on corporate accountability and access to remedy; and
  • numerous multinational and local corporate clients on all aspects of the responsibility to respect human rights.

Our Business and Human Rights team, which sits within our broader Governance, Risk and Compliance Practice, have specialised expertise on business human rights matters and a detailed understanding of the complex legal framework surrounding human rights expectations on business.

We have depth of expertise

Our Business and Human Rights team's legal expertise and advisory work is unparalleled in depth and breadth across Australian professional services firms. Through our experience working on several past assessments of the Australian, as well as Asia-Pacific, business and human rights landscape for the UN Special Rapporteur on Business and Human Rights (SRSG) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as well as for a range of clients, our team has been at the forefront of these developments for many years.

Our team comprises subject-matter experts whose experience and understanding includes the application of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other key international frameworks, multi-stakeholder and civil society initiatives, the interplay and overlap between the risk areas and domestic developments around the world (including Australia). Rachel Nicolson, the practice area leader, is a leading expert on business and human rights in Australia and is ranked in band 2 in the Chambers Global Business and Human Rights category. Our Business and Human Rights team is cross-disciplinary: we have experts in compliance and risk, transactions and investigations/contentious work.

Business is global and so are we

Our alliance with Linklaters means we are able to draw upon the best international regulatory expertise from around the world, so that we can be where you are. We have extensive experience advising on human rights issues in a range of jurisdictions and understand the unique challenges that can arise depending on your business's setting.

We know what comprises best practice

We have a deep understanding of not only what the law requires, but also the various approaches taken by companies leading the way on corporate human rights performance to tackle the compliance issues that business and human rights risks present – and, therefore, what works (and what doesn't).

We have a commercial approach

We understand that the failure to align with human rights standards is a major risk area for you. Whether we are providing advice, conducting human rights due diligence or investigating alleged human rights violations, we take a commercial and innovative approach to meeting our clients' objectives and solving problems. Our approach is adapted to fit the risk, importance and timing of the project or issue.

Thought leadership is what we do

We are leaders in business and human rights, internationally and in Australia. In addition to our role advising the SRSG during his six year mandate in establishing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OHCHR on its ongoing work in relation to access to remedy, we were also commissioned by the Australian Government to 'stocktake' its implementation of the UN Guiding Principles in advance of consultations on a national action plan on business and human rights. Rachel Nicolson, the head of our Business and Human Rights team, is the Leadership Group Director and Chair for the UN Global Compact Australia Division.

How can we help?

Compliance systems and risk management

Instruments such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out the responsibilities corporations have to respect human rights. These instruments provide businesses with the frameworks in which they can build compliance systems to identify, manage and mitigate their risks.

We have assisted companies with the design and review of their compliance systems, human rights policies and benchmarking and reporting frameworks to ensure they are able to manage human rights risks and responsibilities. We have experience conducting human rights impact assessments, and in conducting human rights related training.

Due Diligence

Business and human rights represent an evolving area of risk for companies, and due diligence is one tool they can employ to manage risks and compliance with laws, regulations and standards. Human rights due diligence is designed to work as an ongoing interactive mechanism, to assist in keeping a company appraised of its human rights risks.

Human rights due diligence refers generally to the process of identifying and addressing the human rights impacts of a business across its operations, products and throughout its network of supplier and business partnerships. Understanding what type of due diligence to conduct and when to conduct it is critical.

We have conducted human rights due diligence in a range of contexts, including in relation to country-entry, as well as advised clients on requirements around due diligence assessments, checklists and reporting.

Managing supply chain risks

Human rights issues can arise across a company's supply chain, and companies are expected to look beyond traditional approaches to supply chain management to incorporate human rights considerations. The modern slavery legislation in Australia and elsewhere throws this issue into sharp relief.

We have experience advising a range of clients in a range of industries on managing human rights risks in their supply chains, including in connection with modern slavery reporting requirements.

Investigations, litigation and managing stakeholders

In the business and human rights landscape, there is an emphasis upon preventing adverse human rights impacts. This preventative approach may mitigate adverse impacts or mean they do not occur at all. However, in the event it does, clients may face regulatory action or litigation, and attention from various stakeholders including financiers.

We have conducted independent investigations for clients in connection with human rights impacts and can assist you to manage litigation risk. We provide strategic advice, including at board and executive level, in connection with challenges levelled at a company's licence to operate, including through shareholder activism.