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Principled pragmatism – the way forward for business and human rights

In his report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie describes the complexity of giving practical effect to a human rights model for business. “One size does not fit all in a world of 80,000 transnational corporations, 10 times as many subsidiaries and countless national firms, many of which are small and medium sized enterprises.”

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business, John Ruggie presents his latest report to the Human Rights Council  © Photo UN / Jean-Marc FERRE So while all business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights, t he tools and processes companies employ to meet that responsibility vary with circumstances, including their size and the nature of their operations.

In 2008 the Human Rights Council unanimously welcomed the “protect, respect and remedy” policy framework that Ruggie has proposed for better managing business and human rights challenges. The model rests on three pillars: the State duty to protect against human rights abuses; corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and greater access for victims to effective remedy.

Since its adoption by the Council, the Special Representative has been promoting the framework internationally and working to give it practical effect by offering concrete guidelines and advice to States, business and other interested parties. In the most recent progress report presented to the Human Rights Council, the Special Representative announced he would be developing guiding principles in relation to all three pillars of the framework.

Coinciding with the presentation of his latest report, the Special Representative also hosted a side event at the Council meeting in Geneva on Human Rights and Business. Giving the keynote address, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that, “The work of the Special Representative had provided States and companies alike with an important roadmap to guide efforts to capture the positive contributions the private sector can make to human rights, while preventing or addressing any negative impacts.”

“The increasing interest in the issue of business and human rights demonstrates the growing recognition that the private sector does have an important role to play to promote and protect human rights,” she said.

Acknowledging as he has from the start that there is “no silver bullet solution” to the challenges, Ruggie stressed at the side event that there must be a broad range of responses found to “build an understanding of human rights into the corporate DNA”. The framework is there to bring coherence to the process - it will not solve the problems all at once but we are looking for cumulative progress, he said.

Operating from a position of “principled pragmatism”, Ruggie said he had set out to close the governance gaps which “provide the permissive environment for wrongful acts by companies of all kinds without adequate sanction or reparation”. In this latest phase of his work, he has combined research, consultations and practical experimentation to give practical effect to the “protect, respect, remedy” framework.

The report describes some of the initiatives taken: the mapping of more than 40 jurisdictions with the assistance of leading law firms from around the world; with the help of five companies, the testing of the framework's principles for company-based grievance mechanisms; convening a groups of States to brainstorm ideas to prevent or mitigate business-related human rights abuses in conflict-affected areas; and an online consultation on the corporate responsibility to protect human rights in December 2009 which attracted visitors from 101 countries in its first three months.

In concluding his progress report, Ruggie notes that his position has become the de facto United Nations focal point for business and human rights. States, companies and other national and international entities, the report says, regularly seek his advice regarding their own corporate-related human rights policies and practices.

This should not end he says, when his mandate concludes in 2011. Ruggie has recommended the Human Rights Council give early consideration to a human rights advisory and capacity-building function anchored permanently in the UN.

7 June 2010