Business and Human Rights: a way forward

More than 200 delegates from many different countries, representing government, business, civil society, academia, national human rights institutions and United Nations organisations have gathered in Geneva at the invitation of the UN human rights office to discuss the relationship between business and human rights.

Private and public sector representatives at a consultation on business and human rights in Geneva © OHCHRThe consultation was organised to explore opportunities which would give practical effect to the proposed framework for business and human rights. In June of last year the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, Professor John Ruggie released the framework which is aimed at better managing the human rights challenges posed by business, especially transnational corporations.

The Human Rights Council subsequently asked Ruggie to recommend how the “protect, respect and remedy” framework might be implemented. This consultation has been convened to assist with that process of ‘operationalizing’.

Opening the consultation, Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay reminded participants that, “it is important to keep in mind that the issue of business and human rights does not exist in a vacuum, insulated from the global economic context.” Referring to the near collapse of the global economy a year ago which was “in no small measure due to irresponsible business practices – particularly in the financial sector – and to insufficient oversight by government regulators,” Pillay noted that despite some optimism of an upturn, figures from the International Labour Organisation predict a global increase of 30 million in unemployment this year compared with 2007.

“Governments have the responsibility,” Pillay said, “to prevent and mitigate the impact of the global financial crisis on the enjoyment of human rights… and businesses must not succumb to the temptation of lowering fundamental labour and human rights standards.”

The policy framework being considered by participants to the consultation rests on three pillars: the state duty to protect against human rights abuses through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication; corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and greater access by victims to remedies both judicial and non judicial.

In his opening address, Ruggie outlined the major challenges that have to be overcome in considering a human rights framework for the business world. 

He spoke of the complexity of the task, given that companies have the capacity to affect all human rights, not just those related to workplace issues. That complexity is not reflected generally in either government regulation or business practice. “Although some states are moving in the right direction,” Ruggie said, “overall, their practices exhibit substantial legal and policy incoherence.” 

Ruggie pointed out that in those countries with the weakest governance institutions, corporate-related human rights abuse is most common. Those countries may have ratified all the relevant human rights conventions, he said, but still not have appropriate laws in place or not enforce them. 

With rare exceptions the large multinationals also fall short. Too often, Ruggie said the approach of corporations is a strictly “legalistic” one which does not meet expectations that they operate with respect for human rights or that they will adopt appropriate grievance mechanisms. This approach is described by Ruggie as, “if it isn’t required by law, we don’t need to do it.”

The answer to these challenges can be provided Ruggie suggested, through the “protect, respect and remedy” framework that has been developed. It spells out the different but complementary nature of the roles companies and states must have and when things go wrong it provides remedies. It is also designed to foster a dynamic process of development and change. Ruggie told the conference that based on the response to the framework over the past year, “it is fair to say we have come remarkably far in a relatively short period of time.”

Pillay acknowledged the framework as a “much needed clarification of the respective roles and responsibilities of States and corporations”. She said; “The affirmation of a corporate responsibility to respect human rights sets a new and clear benchmark and represents an important milestone in the evolving understanding of human rights in our societies.”

6 October 2009