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I. Introduction

Responsible shaping of a sustainable and successful global economy is of particular importance to Germany. Few countries’ economies are so internationally entwined as that of the Federal Republic of Germany. Throughout the world, German companies make an important contribution to creating jobs and raising environmental and social standards. The “Made in Germany” label stands for high quality and reliability. At the same time, the increasing involvement of German enterprises in global supply and value chains presents both opportunities and challenges. New markets and production facilities are established, which creates employment and prosperity. At the same time, however, companies operating in global supply and value chains are exposed to risks arising from a lack of transparency and the frequently inadequate respect for human rights and for labour, social, and environmental standards. This applies especially to production in developing and newly industrialised countries but also within Germany.

The legal system of the Federal Republic of Germany contains numerous instruments that are focused primarily on the protection of human rights. They are binding on all enterprises. Where the business operations of an enterprise have an international dimension, procedures for identifying any actual or potential adverse impact on the human rights of people affected by its business activity should be developed and implemented.

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which were adopted by consensus by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 address this need and offer the very first international reference framework and human rights in the context of business, clearly defining the duties and responsibilities of all players in a three-pillar model known as the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. A key element of this framework is its focus on the role of the responsibility of entreprises to conduct human rights due diligence.

What are the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?

In June 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council, acting by consensus, adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This was the culmination of several years of research and consultation led by UN Special Representative Professor John Ruggie and actively supported by the Federal Government. These Guiding Principles are based on the following three pillars:

(i) the state duty to protect human rights
(ii) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights
(iii) access to remedy

These pillars, which were first defined by Professor Ruggie, were underpinned with 31 guiding principles. These UN Guiding Principles have become firmly established as a reference framework for activities in the realm of business and human rights on the part of many international organisations, such as the OECD, the IFC, and the EU. They do not create any new human rights standards or contain any additional obligations in international law but refer back to existing binding and non-binding human rights instruments. The ultimate obligation to protect human rights continues to lie with states.

Objectives of the National Action Plan

The Federal Government attaches great importance to worldwide protection and promotion of human rights. The European Commission, in its Communication of 2011 entitled “A renewed EU strategy 2011-14 for Corporate Social Responsibility”, called on all EU Member States to develop their own national action plans for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. The Federal Government, in the coalition agreement of 2013, committed itself to implementing the UN Guiding Principles in Germany. Through the present National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights (NAP), it wishes to contribute to improving the human rights situation worldwide and to giving globalisation a social dimension in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The objectives of the NAP are:

  • to make the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights applicable in practice for all players,
  • to highlight duties and responsibilities of the state and business respectively,
  • to guarantee policy coherence, and
  • to ensure that German business remains sustainable and competitive.

In the light of these objectives, the present Action Plan is intended to launch a process of creating a road map for the practical implementation of the Guiding Principles. Its aim is to pool the capacities of the various players from government, business, civil society and trade unions, particularly with a view to contributing actively to improving the human rights situation throughout supply and value chains in Germany and worldwide. Through the establishment of reliable basic conditions for German enterprises, the Federal Government thus wishes to work towards a global level playing field and to continue the process launched in 2015, when the Heads of State or Government of the G7 countries adopted their declaration on sustainable supply chains. A common understanding by all players worldwide of due diligence as described in the UN Guiding Principles is an indispensable means to this end.

The state duty and corporate responsibility to protect human rights

With their three-pillar approach, the UN Guiding Principles create a stock taking manual for governments as well as defining state duties and corporate responsibilities. They do not create any new human rights standards or contain any additional obligations in international law but refer back to existing binding and non-binding human rights instruments, namely:

  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • the ILO Core Labour Standards: freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the elimination of forced labour, abolition of child labour and of discrimination in employment and occupation.

Responsibility for the protection of human rights lies with states. This state duty to protect cannot be delegated to other players within society. The UN Guiding Principles show where the state has the greatest responsibility to discharge its duty of protection in the context of business activity and highlight the policy areas in which there is leverage to raise human rights standards in global markets.
At the same time, the UN Guiding Principles make it clear that enterprises also have a social responsibility to respect human rights.

Their activity can have both beneficial and adverse implications for human rights, the risk of adverse effects being greatest where host states do not discharge their duty of protection. Enterprises should therefore establish human rights due diligence processes to prevent, reduce or counterbalance adverse impacts on human rights. Consideration should also be given in this context to beneficial effects of corporate activity in the form of best practices. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, particularly chapter IV (Human Rights), make reference to the UN Guiding Principles.

States must also ensure that those whose human rights are adversely affected have access to state and, where necessary, non-state grievance mechanisms and redress. Enterprises must play an active part in state instruments and should also play an active part in non-state grievance mechanisms. Where these are lacking, enterprises themselves should establish non-state mechanisms.

Document structure

The federal ministries involved in drawing up the NAP (see chapter II) undertook an almost two-year consultation process, in which all stakeholder groups played an active part (see chapter II). The present document addresses the priority issues that were identified during this process and satisfies participants’ wishes that the Federal Government communicate its behavioural expectations clearly to enterprises. This approach is described in chapter III and establishes a binding procedural obligation. The description set out in that chapter is then particularised and underpinned with appropriate measures that are binding to a greater or lesser degree. This process can assume a sectoral character. Chapters IV and V focus on the identified areas where action is required; these areas are briefly described, the current situation is presented, and the measures planned by the Federal Government are specified. Chapter VI describes the planned monitoring process that is planned following the adoption of the NAP.