Making businesses respect human rights

Prof. John Ruggie, the author of a set of guidelines designed to help business companies respect human rights, is one of those people who want to make the world a better place. So after six intense years of research, analysis, international consultations, site visits and hundreds of meetings with governments, civil society organizations, companies and individuals, Prof. Ruggie has a lot to bring to the international debate on business and human rights.

Indigenous woman looking for stones in a Bolivian mine © EPA

The unanimous endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council of these guidelines, known as Guiding Principles, is a clear, strong sign of the importance accorded by the international community to the question of business and human rights.

To follow up on the progress achieved by Prof. Ruggie, the Council decided to establish a Working Group on business and human rights tasked with promoting the dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles. The Group, which will be appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in September, will be composed of five independent experts. It will also be guiding an Annual Forum on business and human rights, open to governments, civil society, business and international organizations.

Ruggie, a Harvard Professor appointed in 2005 as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Business and Human Rights, describes himself as a “results-oriented person”. He has worked throughout his challenging mandate with one objective in mind:  his “driving ambition”, as he calls it, “to change and improve the reality on the ground” for millions of people affected by the activities of business companies.

But how are people affected by the activities of business companies?

Think of health, safety, over-time issues or cases of forced labour. “Employees’ identity papers might be taken away from them so that they cannot leave the work place without the permission of the employer,” was one example mentioned by Prof. Ruggie.

As more and more companies operate in challenging environments, community issues also develop. For example, indigenous people often live in areas that are rich in minerals and oil and when “mining or oil companies come to their territory, tension rises in the community,” explained Ruggie.

The Guiding Principles outline what governments and business should do to respect people’s human rights.

By offering guidance on business conduct, they recommend how governments should lay the ground for companies to avoid or mitigate human rights abuses. “States should act,” said Ruggie. They have a particularly big role to play in zones of conflict, as the most serious human rights violations occur in areas where there is no effective government.  “If the local government is incapable of acting because of a conflict situation, then the home country where a company comes from has to step up and provide greater oversight,” he explained.

The new standards enable companies to identify human rights impacts and provide a blueprint for them on how to know and demonstrate that they are respecting human rights.

The Guiding Principles also give special attention to access to remedy for victims and to ensuring that where people are harmed by business activities, there is both adequate accountability and effective remedy, judicial and non-judicial. States have an obligation to ensure access to remedy in the case of business-related human rights abuses. But also companies have a responsibility to address negative impacts they are linked to, and often “operational-level” grievance mechanisms can be important complements to state-based solutions. Ruggie reflected on his experience in Peru where “community leaders had blocked access to a goldmine to draw attention to issues related to the mine activities.” As a result, security forces intervened “shots were fired and people were hurt.” The event followed many failed attempts by the community leaders to have their voices heard. “This shows the importance of having mechanisms in place where grievances can be raised and remedy can be sought before the situation degenerates.”
The Guiding Principles, which are now the authoritative global point of reference for business and human rights, represent a strong consensus policy and have already inspired several organizations. For example, in its updated guidelines for multinational enterprises, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development introduced a specific chapter on human rights based on the Guiding Principles.

27 June 2011