Holding business accountable for human rights abuses

John Ruggie likes big challenges. In the 1990s, tasked with reviving global action on development, he drafted the now iconic Millennium Development Goals - 8 short targets which have changed the way the world measures progress. Then he went on to find ways to bring transnational enterprises, long treated with suspicion by many governments because of their huge resources and global influence, into the United Nations. He helped establish the Global Compact which has encouraged thousands of companies to sign on to the UN’s key principles to work together for a better world. When he was appointed in 2005 as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie again took on a daunting task: how to get multinational corporations to respect and protect human rights.

John Ruggie, UN representative for Business and Human Rights.  © UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre Ruggie, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, sees himself as a “principled pragmatist. “Mine is a problem-solving mandate rather than an advocacy mandate,” he explained of his Special Representative (unpaid) job. “I wanted to find practical solutions that would have an impact on people’s lives now.”

The scale of the issue would probably have overwhelmed others less energetic and optimistic than Ruggie: there are about 80,000 transnational enterprises, ten times as many subsidiaries and countless millions of national firms. When it comes to finding solutions, he observed ruefully, “one size does not fit all.”

My objective, he recalled, was to achieve “the maximum reduction in corporate-related human rights harm in the shortest possible time. This may seem obvious and unexceptional,” he admits. But because of “the sheer magnitude of my mandate: it includes all human rights, all rights holders, all business – large and small, transnational and national” he decided it was not feasible just to recommend that a new international law be created to solve the problem. “I don’t think a single international standard or legal instrument will work,” he says. The subject area it would have to cover is too vast.

Ruggie’s approach has been to consult with as many of the interested parties as possible: governments, multi-nationals, labour unions, human rights activists, victims of business transgressions, to try to build a body of information and expertise on which to base some practical recommendations. He created a team of researchers and advisors. He and his team visited companies and the communities where they operate in more than a dozen countries. He held 47 international consultations. He raised millions of dollars from governments to fund the research and consultation process. He convinced 25 law firms to give him free advice. As a result, his website http://www.business-humanrights.org/SpecialRepPortal/Home is loaded with data.

When he started 5 years ago, “there was little that counted as shared knowledge in the business and human rights domain. There being no authoritative global repository of information, anecdotal evidence ruled.” Today there is a small library with “literally thousands of pages of analysis of legislation, contracts, allegations of abuse, corporate policies and practices, remedial mechanisms, evolving standards of international criminal law, and UN Treaty Body commentaries on State obligations,” he said.

The United Nations Human Rights Council during a past session.  © UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre This material has helped inform the debate, “nudging protagonists to moderate their more excessive claims”, as he puts it. As a result, the debate about corporate social responsibility is arguably less divisive than it was before. Indeed, Ruggie says one of his greatest achievements has been to “generate a profound shift in the dynamic of the business and human rights debate, from deep polarization” to a greater understanding of the challenges.
Ruggie’s other main achievement is the workability of his proposals. His team is currently running year-long pilot projects on community-level grievance mechanisms with companies in 5 countries: China, Columbia, Russia, South Africa and Vietnam. “So that my final recommendations on this subject will have been road-tested,” he explains. Other recommendations have also been subject to practical testing. Already, he says, there has been “enormous uptake” with many of his recommendations being utilized by governments, human rights organizations, workers’ organizations and companies themselves.

He likes to tell a story about how his proposals can have a preventive effect. For the multinational extractive industry, long a target of human rights activists, conflict with the community where the companies operate was just considered part of the cost of doing business. But when these huge companies started to actually count what it cost them to manage community conflict, they realized it was expensive: $6.5 billion over 2 years for one company alone. The human rights due diligence process proposed by Ruggie, enables a company to systematically identify its human rights impacts and their costs. This realization can help companies move towards more socially responsible operating processes.

There are still huge protection gaps, he admits, that need to be addressed. But in his view it is only practical to focus on the most egregious abuses. He is especially concerned about the lack of capacity of small and medium-sized companies at the national level. “Transnational companies are sometimes more conscious of corporate social responsibility than national companies,” he observed. 

In June, Ruggie will present his final conclusions to the Human Rights Council in the form of a set of Guiding Principles for holding business accountable for human rights. These Principles are available for public comment until 31 January at www.srsgconsultations.org. He hopes these Guiding Principles will establish “a common platform for action on which cumulative progress can be built, without foreclosing any promising longer-term developments.” This is not the end of the story, he says, it is really just the end of the beginning.

21 January 2011