Can the UN Make Business Respect Human Rights?

Last Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council announced its endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, developed by John Ruggie. The UN press release called it “an unprecedented step,” the establishment of “the authoritative global reference point” in questions of business and human rights.

Unprecedented? Only if you ignore history. In fact, the UNHRC endorsement caps a long period of unhappiness over business and human rights at the UN.

Consider the origins of Ruggie’s mandate. After several false starts, beginning in the 1970s, the UN in 2003 issued the Norms on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises. The original goal, as Ruggie describes it [pdf], was “to impose on companies, directly under international law, the same range of human rights duties that States have accepted for themselves under treaties they have ratified.”

Sensible enough, you’d think. The Norms gave the UN a chance to “revive its relevance,” as Surya Deva puts it [pdf], “in a new world order in which states no longer enjoy the monopoly as violators of human rights”. Despite a promising start, the Norms ended up falling far short, in Deva’s judgment, of laying the groundwork for “an effective international regulatory regime of corporate human rights responsibility.”

Businesses fought back fiercely; and governments, far from offering support, “went into hiding,” as Ruggie put it in a 2008 interview. By the time the Norms emerged from a UN Sub-Committee in August of 2003, they were hardly fighting words. Like the UN Global Compact, launched amid much hullabaloo only three years earlier, the Norms were not legally binding and left it up to businesses to decide the depth of their commitment and to meet human rights responsibilities on their own terms. (And as I pointed out in a previous post, most companies are only too happy to say that they are equipped to decide, all by themselves, whether they are respecting human rights.)

Recognizing that his mandate began in “controversy,” Ruggie took a “consultative” approach to developing his framework. This was shrewd, as it included business from the start, and gained endorsements — I almost want to call them corporate sponsors, given the display of logos on the Global Business Initiative site — along the way: South American mining company Cerrejon, GE, Flextronics, Coca Cola, JSL Stainless, Sime Darby, Novo Nordisk, and French oil giant Total, among others. 47 states, including the United States, also signed on.

The diplomatic achievement is admirable, but result of all this consensus-building is predictably anodyne. According to the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework Ruggie developed, the State has a duty to Protect human rights; corporations have a responsibility to Respect human rights; and victims of abuse need access to judicial and non-judicial Remedy. The Guiding Principles set out “comprehensive recommendations” for how states and businesses are to “implement” the framework, “in order to better manage business and human rights challenges.” “Manage” seems to be the operative word here, and the whole exercise is, unfortunately, replete with management-speak.

In other words, the Guiding Principles and the Framework they accompany feel a little like Norms 2.0, offering guidance and encouragement instead of rules and regulations, and on terms business finds acceptable. Like the Global Compact, the Guidelines create a forum for discussion and dissemination of ideas — “another talk shop,” as Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch said dismissively. US envoy Daniel Baer was a little more generous – and decidedly cautious — when he said the Guiding Principles would make it “less likely” that businesses take “actions that might undermine the enjoyment of human rights.”

So it’s unclear to me exactly how much has been accomplished. Julian B. Gonzalez, Vice President for Sustainability and Public Affairs at Cerrejon, says Ruggie’s work has “not been in vain” and credits Ruggie with having shown his company the way: now the mining company has established “a rights-based Grievance Office” and has gained “better knowledge of neighbor communities and our impacts.” Flextronics reports it is now “proactively” addressing human rights; Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent appeared in a “global video” emphasizing the importance of respecting human rights across the global supply chain. And so on.

Maybe this counts as a step in the right direction, or maybe it’s just a public relations exercise. It might be both. Whether the UN could have done more this time around remains a question. In any case it seems clear that Wednesday’s announcement represents another attempt to establish UN authority in the area of human rights without offending some of the world’s most powerful actors, without regulating business activity or curtailing bad corporate behavior.

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