International Bar Association releases updated guidance on business and human rights

The guidance aims to demystify the practice area of business and human rights law

International Bar Association releases updated guidance on business and human rights

The International Bar Association (IBA) has recently unveiled its “Updated Guidance Note on Business and Human Rights,” focusing on “the role of lawyers in the changing landscape.”

Stéphane Brabant, chair of the core drafting group, underscored the urgency and importance of the updated guidance, noting, "The enactment of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence requires all businesses, including law firms, to adapt. As soft law hardens and broadens, and ESG [environmental, social, governance] principles increasingly influence investment decisions, the Updated IBA Guidance helps lawyers contribute to the business respect for human rights."

According to the IBA, the need for such guidance has become increasingly apparent since the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. The IBA's initial response was the 2016 issuance of a Practical Guide for Business Lawyers on Business and Human Rights, aimed at assessing the implications of the UNGPs and related standards for legal professionals. This guide highlighted the widespread adoption of the UNGPs, their growing significance to states, businesses, and civil society, and their integration into legislation and impact on legal practice.

Over the past 18 months, efforts have been made to update and simplify the 2016 IBA Guidance, culminating in a document prepared by a select group of lawyers and approved by an extensive team of over 30 experts in business, human rights, and ethics. This initiative was supported by the University of Lausanne, contributing significantly to the document's development and its translation into multiple languages.

The updated IBA guidance aims to demystify the practice area of business and human rights law, making it accessible to lawyers globally. It addresses the crucial role of legal professionals in guiding their clients through the complexities of new laws requiring due diligence and reporting, which have extraterritorial impacts.

John Sherman, a foremost expert on the UNGPs and a key contributor to the 2016 and 2023 IBA guidance documents, emphasized the transition from soft to hard law, stating, "What is soft law today may likely be hard law tomorrow. Therefore, corporate lawyers should not only be technical experts, who advise clients on what they legally can and cannot do. They should also be wise counsellors, who advise clients on alignment with soft law norms, such as the authoritative UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights."

Approved during the IBA Annual Conference in Paris in November 2023, this document has now been released in English, with translations into Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Russian, and Portuguese underway. The guidance is available for download on the IBA website.

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