International Investment Agreements (IIAs) and Human Rights

16 April 2021. Submissions now online on this page.
Issued by
Working Group on business and human rights
To inform the Working Group’s 2021 report to the UN General Assembly


Investment agreements or investment chapters in trade agreements (IIAs) concluded by states – in a bilateral, regional or international setting – can adversely affect the business respect for human rights in diverse ways. In addition to constraining the legal or policy space available to states to regulate the conduct of investors, IIAs can also impact affected communities’ right to seek effective remedies against investors for project-related human rights abuses.

Principle 9 of the UN Guiding Principles on the Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), therefore, reminds States to “maintain adequate domestic policy space to meet their human rights obligations when pursuing business-related policy objectives with other States or business enterprises, for instance through investment treaties or contracts.”  

How could states maintain such domestic policy space? Building on the work of UNCTAD and others in this area, the Working Group aims to unpack implications of Principle 9 for all three pillars of the UNGPs and provide concrete guidance to states in managing better the adverse impact of IIAs on human rights.

Objectives of the 2021 General Assembly report

The Working Group’s 2021 report to the UN General Assembly will focus on providing practical guidance to States on negotiating human rights-compatible IIAs in line with the UNGPs. The report will cover all three pillars: the duty of States to preserve regulatory space while negotiating IIAs so as to strike a balance between attracting investment and promoting responsible business conduct; the responsibility of investors to respect all internationally recognized human rights; and the role of IIAs in providing access to remedy to individuals and communities affected by investment-related projects.

If you would like to engage in this project, get further information about consultations or receive updates about the project, please contact the Working Group’s secretariat with “IIAs and HRs” in the email subject (


The Working Group is convening several virtual consultations in different parts of the world to inform the upcoming report. A summary of these consultations will be posted here in due course.

  • A consultation for Europe, 10 December 2020, co-organized by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and the University of Essex Business and Human Rights Project
  • A consultation for the Americas, 23-24 February 2021, co-organized by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), Universidad Andrés Bello, and Instituto de Derechos Humanos y Empresas - Universidad de Monterrey
  • A consultation only for private sector organized by the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), 9 April 2021
  • A consultation for the Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 21 April 2021, convened by the UN Working Group and co-organized the Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business (Poland) and Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University (Ukraine). Concept note for the meeting available in English and Русский. Summary of the discussions from the consultation (English)
  • A consultation convened by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights and organized by the South Centre, only for its member States, 29 April 2021.
  • A consultation for Africa, 18 May and 26 May 2021, co-organized by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, the African Coalition for Corporate Accountability (ACCA), the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) Uganda, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Summary of the discussions from the consultation (English)
  • A consultation for Asia and Oceania, 14 June 2021. It is being convened by the Working Group and co-organized by Australian Human Rights Institute (Australia), Hamad bin Khalifa University College of Law (Qatar), University of Colombo (Sri Lanka) and ESCAP.  


The Working Group invited States and all other stakeholders to submit relevant information to help inform the report. The extended deadline is 16 April, 2021.

See questionnaire (EnglishFrançaisEspañol) and open call for input (English | Français | Español).

Links to inputs received are below.

The forthcoming report will build, among others, on prior work undertaken by the Working Group examining various dimensions of the interface between IIAs and human rights. 

1. Connectiong the dots

In its October 2017 report to the UN General Assembly (A/72/162), the Working Group highlighted that “effective remedies for business-related human rights abuses could be sought in diverse settings … and that the negative impact of … dispute settlement under trade or investment agreements” on access to effective remedies under the UNGPs should be managed. The report further recommended: “States should conduct an inclusive and transparent human rights impact assessment before concluding trade-investment agreements and insert explicit substantive human rights provisions in those agreements to preserve adequate policy space to discharge their human rights obligations.”

2. Roundtable

On 18 October 2017, the Working Group and the Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) co-hosted a roundtable in New York on “Impacts of the Investment Regime on Access to Justice”. An outcome paper of the roundtable is now available.   

3. Blog

A three-prong approach has been suggested to states in the following blogpost to ensure that IIAs do not result in asymmetrical empowerment of investors or inequitable and unsustainable economic development: Managing States’ “Fatal Attraction” to International Investment Agreements

4. Letter to states

In March 2019, the Working Group joined other UN experts to write a letter to states to raise concerns about the ongoing work of the Working Group III on Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) Reform.

5. Sessions at the UN Forum

The Working Group, in collaboration with other partners, has organized several sessions at the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights to stimulate discussion about challenges and emerging good practices to manage those challenges in the context of IIAs and human rights:

Inputs received


Other stakeholders

Working Group on business and human rights
Recent thematic reports
Issues in focus
Contact information

Working Group on Business and Human Rights
Palais des Nations, 8-14, Avenue de la Paix. 1211 Geneva 10
Tel: +41 22 917 9159

Others Involved