The B-Tech project is bridging the gap between technology and human rights © Freepik

UN B-Tech Project
Spearheading human rights in technology sector
1 Apr 2024

Businesses are a major source of investment, innovation, and development, and have been a key driver of progress for the Sustainable Development Goals and positive human rights impact. Despite these benefits, business practices can also pose significant risks to human rights.

Beyond the confines of the workplace, the nature of globalization means that responsible businesses risk being involved with adverse impacts on human rights in different ways, including those which are beyond their control. Global value chains rely on external suppliers throughout the world, many of whom have varying degrees of respect for human rights. Operating environments can quickly deteriorate in response to shocks like civil unrest, the promulgation of repressive laws, or climate events. As a result, business respect for human rights requires more effective policies and broad-reaching collaboration between actors, across the public and private sectors.

The tech sector faces unique challenges in this regard. Artificial Intelligence, new surveillance capabilities, data collection, and other emerging technologies pose novel risks without guidance to dictate best practice. Without sufficient support from human rights actors, the tech sector is at high risk of a fragmented and ineffective response to these threats.

There is a growing and urgent call for action voiced by policymakers, civil society, and as well as from many companies to find principled and pragmatic ways to prevent and address the harms that might, or do, occur during the application of digital technologies by the private and public sectors. These issues are increasingly seen through the lens of human rights risks, not just ethical dilemmas. This lens has widened to bring into view issues of governance, public policy, and corporate responsibility and accountability.

As the demand for regulation in the digital space grows, public and private responses risk being ad hoc, fragmented and not aligned with international standards. As a result, there is a significant need to build strategic and impactful engagement between all relevant actors, including business to foster the implementation of human rights standards and strengthen accountability for adverse business-related human rights impacts.

The B-Tech Project calls for companies and policymakers to take a rights-based approach to address the challenges of new digital technologies. The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) is well-placed to serve as a convener and provide thematic expertise on operationalization of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). This will help achieve responsible development and deployment of technology products and services, anchored in human rights and responsible business conduct. As a leader in the human rights space, the UN Human Rights Office plays a unique role in initiating, hosting, and stewarding the development of pragmatic approaches. In 2019, the UN Human Rights Office launched its flagship initiative, called the B-Tech project, to collectively tackle issues of tech governance, public policy, corporate responsibility, and accountability. This involved an inclusive process of consultation and research involving key actors (public and private) and building on existing initiatives and expertise. 

The rise in new technology calls for action from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights © Freepik

The B-Tech project provides an authoritative and broadly accepted roadmap for applying the UNGPs to the technology sector.

The project offers practical guidance, public policy recommendations, ad hoc interpretive advice, and multi-stakeholder consultations with companies, civil society, and policymakers, and allows opportunities to contribute to UN processes, the annual Business and Human Rights Forum, and consultations with regulators. These efforts seek to find principled and pragmatic ways to prevent and address potential harms that may occur in the application of digital technologies by the private and public sectors.

Since its inception, B-Tech has evolved into a robust mixture of initiatives under its umbrella:

• Generative AI project: a workstream focused on demystifying how the UNGPs on Business and Human Rights can guide more effective understanding, mitigation, and governance of the human rights risks posed by generative AI.

• Community of Practice: a cohort of the biggest tech companies coming together in a safe space to discuss common challenges, solutions, and best practices related to implementing UNGPs in company policies and processes.

• Peer Learning Platform: a series of public webinars which allow participants from tech companies across geographic regions to broaden their respective engagement with the UNGPs and support human rights capacity-building.

• Institutional Investor Business Models Tool: a practical tool to empower investors to engage more meaningfully with tech companies to address business model-related human rights risks.

• Stakeholder Engagement Working Group: a working group of civil society organizations and tech companies, empowering those affected to influence the design, development, and use of digital technologies.

• B-Tech Africa: a workstream specifically targeting tech companies, investors, civil society, and other key stakeholders across Africa to ensure coherent policy responses to context-specific human rights risks.

• UNGP compass: an upcoming evidence-based guidance tool to assist policymakers in aligning regulation, with a specific focus on tech companies’ adherence to the UNGPs.

In terms of tech company engagement, B-Tech’s strength comes from the diverse makeup of its participants from the private and public sectors. UN Human Rights acknowledges that business – and the tech sector specifically – is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in this work. Participants also receive specialized support through their engagement, including:

• Authoritative guidance on the interpretation of international human rights standards, primarily the UNGPs.

• Empowerment and strengthened capacity to fulfil their human rights responsibility by building a stronger understanding of the challenges and solutions – while also influencing sector-specific due diligence and practical understanding on how to provide access to remedy when people have suffered harm.

• Access to a neutral platform where leaders and experts from across business, civil society, and government can convene and be granted a safe space to openly discuss emerging challenges.

• A voice at the table for constructive discussions about appropriate public policies and regulations to govern the development and use of digital technologies.

• An opportunity to build goodwill across the sector by profiling existing company efforts to implement the UNGPs. 


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* Namon Jain is a consultant for OHCHR B-Tech Project.
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