CESCR issues new guidance to States on how to apply their ESCR obligations to business activities

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In June 2017, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) adopted its General Comment No. 24 on State obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) with respect to business activities (currently only available in English).

The General Comment provides specific guidance to the currently 165 States who are party to the ICESCR, concerning the application of their economic, social and cultural rights obligations in the context of business activities. It is divided into sections covering: context and scope; obligations of non-discrimination, and obligations to respect, to protect, and to fulfil; extraterritorial obligations to respect, to protect, and to fulfil; remedies (general principles, and types of remedies); and implementation. It details necessary State measures with respect to, among other topics: the negotiation of trade and investment treaties; human rights due diligence and supply chains; privatization; international cooperation; abusive tax practices; barriers to remedies (such as inadequate access to information, corporate structures which restrict liability, lack of legal aid, and the application of the forum non conveniens doctrine); the leadership and role of indigenous peoples; protection of human rights defenders; meaningful participation and consultation; and the expectation for States to develop national action plans to implement their obligations in practice.

CAWG members participated actively throughout the initial stages and development of the General Comment, including providing preliminary input, communicating developments, coordinating member activity at the Day of General Discussion, and presenting an oral intervention that reiterated member priorities as highlighted in a 2016 CAWG collective submission on corporate accountability. Fifteen CAWG members, as well as several allies, also submitted individual submissions commenting on the draft version of the General Comment.

The General Comment can be understood as a significant component of the evolving international human rights framework on corporate accountability, and is a complementary and useful building block towards the proposed binding international treaty on human rights and business. CAWG advocacy relating to the developing treaty will continue in advance of, and at, the third session of the intergovernmental working group from 23-27 October 2017 in Geneva.

For further information and analysis, see:

  • The press release issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which notes that “the General Comment emphasizes that States should ensure corporate strategies do not undermine their efforts to fully realize the rights set out in the Covenant.”
  • The press release issued by CAWG member, the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, focusing on the guidance on extraterritorial obligations as a major contribution of the General Comment.
  • The analysis issued by CAWG ally, the International Service for Human Rights, emphasising the guidance on human rights defenders.
  • The press release issued by CAWG member CELS, that emphasized the importance of this General Comment to guide States at the national level and at the same time as a contribution to the ongoing Treaty process being discussed at the Human Rights Council.
  • The press release issued by the Extraterritorial Obligations (ETO) Consortium, which ESCR-Net helped to launch and which involves the ongoing leadership of multiple ESCR-Net Members, describing how the General Comment addressed challenges on the three levels of extraterritorial obligations (respect, protect and fulfil).