Last week, as expected, John Ruggie’s six year business and human rights marathon came to an official end.
The Human Rights Council announced that:
“..the Guiding Principles recommend how governments should provide greater clarity of expectations and consistency of rule for business in relation to human rights.
The ‘Corporate Responsibility to Respect’ principles provide a blueprint for companies on how to know and show that they are respecting human rights.
The ‘Access to Remedy’ principles focus on ensuring that where people are harmed by business activities, there is both adequate accountability and effective redress, judicial and non-judicial.”
The endorsement seems to mean, according to Amnesty International, that the UN Human Council will set up a “Working Group assisted by an annual consultative Forum as the Special Procedure that will follow-up the mandate of the SRSG.” (SRSG means John Ruggie)
Large companies such as Coca-Cola, General Electric and various membership organisations such as BSR and IBLF have come out in support of Ruggie’s guiding principles, as one would expect.
International human rights, along with climate change impacts, is one of those issues that traditionally encapsulates the gap between some of the campaigning NGOs and business groups on ethical/corporate responsibility issues.
Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups, such as Amnesty International, want:
“…a mechanism to scrutinize how companies and governments apply these principles”.
Presumably this mechanism would involve something like national governments beefing up areas such as NCP’s (OECD Guideline contact points) investigative power, and give prosectutors a legal mandate to investigate and enforce national legislation around business and human rights that’s based on unified global arrangements.
I’ve written to Human Rights Watch to see if that’s a correct assertion, or whether there is something more ‘supra national’ that’s been suggested in terms of investigation and enforcement of ratified agreements, for example at the UN level.
That’s a criticism often levelled at HRW and Amnesty: That their proposals call for an unrealistic level of “global government” that would take way too long, if ever, to negotiate and bring into force.
Here’s the response I just received from Arvind Ganesan, lead on business and human rights at Human Rights Watch, and a respected figure in the field:
“As with other processes at the Human Rights Council, the HRC could have given the Working Group a broader mandate to review specific cases. It didn’t. Instead, it gave it a mandate to disseminate the Guiding Principles and Framework and discuss deepening implementation.
What they should have done is also provided for some type of review mechanism. For example, government members of the Human Rights Council are subject to Universal Periodic Reviews as part of their membership.
The HRC could have given the working group the modest ability to examine the role of governments or companies when their activities implicate the Principles or Framework—not as expansive as Universal Periodic Review, but some way to review actual cases.
This seems logical given that the HRC endorsed the Principles and the Principles recommend some accountability.
Similarly, the other special rapporteurs have the ability to talk about actual cases or government activities within the context of their specific mandates, the same could have been formalized here.
The second issue is what you describe: governments need to ensure the companies are obliged to respect human rights through a combination of regulation, policy, and law.”
Arvind adds that: “If governments strongly endorsed the principles then they should take the next logical step and start revising their policies, laws and regulations to ensure that they and their companies fulfill those objectives.
If China supported the guiding principles, it should stop demanding that companies to help censor users on the internet, for example.
Will the companies that supported the principles now press their home governments to enact laws and polices that would require them to respect human rights?
The real test of their endorsements are whether they are really willing to put those principles into practice and really be monitored and held accountable for their implementation.”
As far as I can tell, given the complicated language/situation, Amnesty International takes a similar position to HRW on these latest business and human rights objectives.
Amnesty says that “without providing the missing elements, the effectiveness of the resolution and ultimately the Working Group will be weak.”
HRW’s Ganesan is asking Ruggie and/or the new working group that’s been set up, to push hard for progress now, asking:
“…whether the former SRSG or the newly constituted working group will now work openly and aggressively to press governments and companies to implement the commitments by changing laws, policies and regulations to ensure companies respect human rights or speak up when they do not.”
What does all this mean? From my grasp of it all it may mean that the business and human rights movement has taken a big step forward.
Finally we have international agreement around a framework, a paradigm if you like, for this most difficult and often subjective of areas.
That’s surely a big step.
Last week’s events at the UN Human Rights Council may also mean that the stage is now set for campaign groups to turn up the heat, often with the tacit support of big business and some of its lobby groups, on governments over human rights.
The OECD and its member governments have raised their game recently, at least in words.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that business is “off the hook” with NGOs.
Amnesty is going hard after Vedanta Resources in India.
Greenpeace’s top boss, Kumi Naidoo, is currently in jail in Greenland after climbing a Cairn Energy oil rig.
And Human Rights Watch is documenting business-related human rights problems, it says, in the US, Papua New Guinea, Kazakhstan and China, amongst others.
But it does mean that we may start to see big business, campaign groups and OECD government members take a consistent, unified, UN-based approach to the topic to emerging and developing countries.
Some might call that an unholy alliance. I am sure it will take some time to see just how this plays out.
But firms such as Facebook, desperate to get into China but facing censorship, may now find themselves under much greater pressure than under the more fractured approach in the past.
Smaller mining/oil and gas firms and large contract manufacturers, among others, will also feel much greater pressure. Campaigners will be using Ruggie’s work to ensure scrutiny.
Despite the shortcomings of the UN Human Rights Council’s proposed actions, the completion of John Ruggie’s work is surely one of the most important milestones in the history of the field of corporate responsibility.
Now for the hard part: Putting the framework into action.