Business and human rights: When policy meets people

My colleague Peter Davis and I had the privilege of meeting for lunch today with John Ruggie and his colleague Caroline Rees.

We had an excellent conversation about the work both are doing for the United Nations on business and human rights.

If you are not aware of their work, take a look at this comprehensive portal.

John Ruggie’s final report on how governments, companies and civil society should work to improve human rights where business is concerned is due in June this year.

It will be the culmination of some six years work to bring the different sides together around a common framework.

Just as importantly, Ruggie’s work has included a great deal of pragmatic ‘trial and error’ testing by brave companies around the world. Here’s a free PDF of our extensive article, a year ago, on how that was working in practice.

His final report will have a major impact on how all the actors in the space consider business impacts and human rights.

I’m not going to mention much about what we discussed (not that it was top secret), but I will discuss below one area of conversation, because I brought it up, at least initially.

Communicating the lessons is vital

One of the most important outcomes of John Ruggie’s work, in my view, will be the practical lessons learned by business around human rights.

The business world enjoys finding out what the competition is up to, and how their experiments went.

Business schools educating the next generation of managers love case studies.

Managers, like everyone else, respond to stories well told.

A couple of challenges

But there are two problems for the business and human rights movement in communicating good practice, as well as bad.

Firstly, companies, until very recently, have not liked talking about challenges overcome on the road to better human right performance. (Many are even leery about discussing success, in case NGOs or media ask why they didn’t do it before!). They have not invested enough in working out what success looks like, and spent more time on managing risk.

And secondly, whilst leadership matters hugely in setting tone and driving policy, performance happens on the ground.

At the mine site, in the community around the factory, in suppliers facilities.

Often, as well all know, in states with weaker governance and a lack of vibrant, uncensored institutions.

It’s the operational manager on site, the buyer, or his/her direct boss in country or at home, who is in charge of how business and human rights merge at the sharp end.

This is when policy meets real people.

These managers don’t usually read publications such as Ethical Corporation, the reports from the Institute for Human Rights and Business, or the Business and Human Rights website.

Getting practical lessons from successful projects through to the people that matter, is the key for progresssing the notion of business and human rights.

Mid-way through 2011, Ruggie’s incredibly important work will give companies more confidence to talk about what works – and what does not.

The next stage will be write up those lessons into readable formats and get them to those people on the ground making the day-to-day decisions that affect corporate human rights performance.

A policy is one thing, a compelling story with a decent ending that’s useful for managers on the ground, is quite another.

Ethical Corporation will support all and any efforts to get those stories written up and out there for managers to read.

We’ll write a series of them ourselves, no doubt. Here’s something along those lines we published recently.

Here also is a publication we have just created on why getting it wrong matters.

And our management writer Oliver Balch has blogged on some key lessons learned by Shell in recent times in this post.

2011 is a year to celebrate for business and human rights: Finally we will have a commonly agreed, commonly-created approach on which to base decisions.

The value of Ruggie’s framework and the accompanying lessons it has generated is not just that it creates something to hold business to account with, but also that it will help us praise those that get it right, and generate peer pressure on the laggards.

The other value, of course, is that the UN is taken very seriously indeed in many emerging economies and developing countries. (more so than in the West, particularly the US)

Ruggie’s work will provide real impetus for companies in these nations, state-owned or otherwise, to take human rights much more seriously as a management issue.

We should look forward to his final report and begin to think about turning his work into reality.

We can start by telling stories of both success and failure that resonate with managers, CEOs and vulnerable communities alike.


  1. Toby, good post. business and human rights is dear to my heart – as you know – and I think you are spot on in raising the challenge of translating fine words and commitments at headquarters into rights-sensitive practices on the ground. in over a decade of working with companies on these issues, this has been topmost in my mind. yes, corporate leadership is necessary / essential to creating the conditions for action on the ground but local leadership is also necessary and that requires far more than sending out some policy and guidance documents and offering on-line training. in our experience local teams need help to lift such words off the page and to interpret them into practice, to identify and resolve the dilemmas that arise, and to keep human rights values in focus when the pressures of business demand hard results…. Toby, a great debate to have opened up. Happy new year!

  2. Thanks Toby for the coverage of the business- human rights interface.
    One area of concern I have with the new GP Framework is the fissure that will surely exist if the public’s expectation is not met by a company’s ability to deliver. This will arise if sufficient investment is not made in equipping business leaders, the senior teams and front line managers with the proper set of skills to deliver on a ‘respect for human rights’ platform. These individuals will need to assess the human rights implications of policies and operational decisions. For this to occur, they will need to understand what is meant by ‘respecting human rights’. Taking the argument one step further, they will be expected to know the appropriate mitigation measures to comply with due diligence. The human rights arena is a very complex one to navigate; rights are not simply items on a check-list. There are no stand-alone rights. Rather, there is an inter-dependency among rights and a rich complexity in their relationship with one another that creates the dynamic opportunity for their advancement and protection. I argue, to navigate one’s way through the depth of rights, folks need to be trained to use a rights-based lens in their analysis and decision making. I have written three blog entries this past week on the business-human rights discussion. The most recent one focuses on rights based training. Consider dropping by to let me have your thoughts!

Comments are Closed

All rights reserved @ SustainableSmartBusiness