Getting to impact in human rights: From Pillars to Pyramids


The three pillars of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) form the internationally recognised framework for businesses to address human rights.


The ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ pillars contain the guidelines, but I think we need a new model to illustrate how they work in practice. To effectively tackle the negative human rights impacts that occur as a result of business operations, we need to see the full system in which the business operates. Change doesn’t happen in siloes.

I have spent the last 6 years working to increase the awareness and implementation of the UNGPs across multiple sectors. It has been both rewarding and frustrating: rewarding to see companies really working to embrace the essence of the principles and demonstrate genuine commitment to change; frustrating to see the companies using light references to the framework and saturating themselves in policy, rather than trying to make an impact on the ground.

For more information on the UNGP pillars see:  Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

For more information on the UNGP pillars see: Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

One of the key barriers to impact, as I see it, is that we are conceptualising the UNGPs as pillars. Three equally standing pillars. But pillars create gaps and gaps create opportunity for a lack of accountability and action.

Where negative human rights impacts occur, it can usually be mapped back to the one pillar ‘not doing enough’ or not ‘pulling its weight’. In reality though, there is a dynamic interplay between the three pillars: a state protects by ensuring a corporate operates with respect; access to remedy relies upon a system where corruption is called out and addressed and freedom of speech and association are supported. Nothing happens in isolation. The clarity the three pillars bring is accompanied by an oversimplification of the relationship between states, corporations and civil society and the ability to create an impact.

Therefore, I think we need to tear down our temple and build a pyramid. Well, technically a tetrahedron.


This new UNGP Pyramid is a way of visualising the interconnectivity between the three key actors (state, corporate and civil society) and shows how this impacts their ability to bring the principles to life. The UNGPs give the roadmap for implementation, and for business the pathway can loosely be distilled to the development of policy, the creation and execution of processes and, ultimately, having an impact. However, what we are currently seeing in the business adoption of the UNGPs is a saturation of policy development and less action or focus around impact.


So, not only can the UNGP Pyramid help us see how the discourse of business and human rights is being saturated by policy, it also provides a model that can also demonstrate the interconnectivity in our thinking that sis required that we do not operate in siloes. Business are by and large practical and so want to do things not just say things. States are increasingly introducing legislation (mainly targeting modern slavery and trafficking) with a focus on mandatory reporting in order to develop greater transparency and disclosure.

When considering the possible ‘pressure points’, we can see that this provides an opportunity to accelerate to impact. The journey to impact should become shorter as the pressure mounts. This need for action, and consequently impact, can be created in multiple ways: it could be catalysed by a crisis when civil society is ‘leaning’ or ‘applying pressure’ on corporations to act; it could be generated by time and a slowing of progress from government; it could even be generated by corporate stagnation and a lack of demonstrable progress to interested stakeholders (e.g. investors, ESG ratings and rankings).


The ambition of the UNGPs is to have an evenly supported pyramid (a regular tetrahedron, to be precise). However, we know that this is not always the case. As the business community, we know we have the unique ability to accelerate our impact as we can assess where we can affect the greatest change and tackle issues with the same rigor and care that we would take in running our businesses.


Want to learn more about this new UNGP model and how it can work in action?

You’ll be able to find Georgie at the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva in November. Alternatively, please get in touch and we can fix a time to speak on the phone or grab a coffee - she can be reached at: