November 2011

Everyone under the same umbrella

John Ruggie addresses concerns about business and human rights

By P. Braul and A. Baldwin

Professor John Ruggie’s “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework for human rights and business has been a long time coming. It was welcomed by the United Nations in 2008, and the “Guiding Principles” for implementation were endorsed this year. In all, Ruggie and colleagues have spent more than six years on these issues, and the United Nations Secretary-General’s former Special Representative on Human Rights and Business spoke about his work to a multi-stakeholder group on September 15 on behalf of the Centre for Excellence in CSR. His presentation there was one of many stops to provide encouragement and build support for the dialogue and effort still needed to drive widespread changes.

The three core principles of the framework consist of the obligation of the state to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for greater access by those who have been wronged to effective remedy.

“Human rights and treating people with dignity are core to social sustainability – we assumed that and built from there,” Ruggie told the group, which included academics, non-governmental organization (NGO) participants, consultants, government observers and industry representatives. The event was held under “Chatham House Rules,” so it is not possible to identify individual stakeholders and their comments.

Most present praised the work recognizing that the Guiding Principles have provided a much needed foundation for further work. Many confirmed their support for a process that encourages preventive and remedial measures. Ruggie’s recent work, attempting to push the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other multi-lateral bodies towards common standards, was also applauded.

Concerns were focused on how to make the framework easier to implement and how to address perceived shortcomings in the guidance on judicial and non-judicial remedies.

Much of the discussion focused on the responsibilities of the different actors: the legal obligations of government under international human rights law, and companies responsible for managing the adverse impacts of their own activities and business relationships connected to these activities. Some noted an increasing need for clarity in the role of civil society – groups outside formal government and market structures such as NGOs, professional associations and community groups. Currently, civil society is only mentioned in the Guiding Principles with respect to implementation of effective grievance mechanisms, a responsibility that it shares with industry and government.

Some of the most striking discussion spurred by Ruggie’s talk focused on the Canadian government’s opportunity to play a more significant role internationally and at home. Attendees saw the potential for the Canadian government to support host country interventions, capacity building and many other initiatives as the framework begins to be put in place worldwide.

Ruggie and his colleagues have already moved on to the next steps towards implementation. Several members of his UN team have formed a new non-profit organization called Shift,  a centre for business and human rights practice; Ruggie will chair its board of directors. He will also take over as Chair of the Institute for Human Rights and Business’ International Advisory board in January 2012.

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