‘Just Business’ – Ruggie on business and human rights at the UN

Professor John Ruggie, the former Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on business and human rights, has published ‘Just Business’, a book recounting his experience with business and human rights at the United Nations. He was the chief architect of the United Nations framework and guiding principles on business and human rights – often referred to as the Ruggie framework. The Guiding Principles were endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 and Ruggie’s book details his role in the whole undertaking.

I was fortunate to hear Professor Ruggie give a talk at the Kennedy School of Government last month. He recalled certain key aspects of his approach to addressing business and human rights at the United Nations, as described in the book. He stressed his intention from the outset to include companies, especially multinational corporations, in his various consultations. Otherwise, he said, they would undermine him from the outside.

Professor Ruggie explained also that he did not try to create a new international treaty. He became quickly aware of the debate regarding voluntary or mandatory commitments to human rights by companies at his first consultation in Geneva in 2005. The 2003 Draft Norms on human rights and transnational corporations had generated significant opposition from States and companies:

Business often resists binding regulations, and this particular instrument was seen to transfer to companies responsibilities for human rights that business believe belonged to governments. Many advocacy groups discount voluntary initiatives because they believe they provide little more than whitewash for companies – or bluewash for those who want to work the UN color into the criticism – and some hold that they divert attention from the need for legal accountability (37-38).

The former Special Representative also cited the length of time it has taken to draft and adopt international instruments – twenty-six years for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (xxiii). His approach was one of seeking a “thick consensus” rather than “thin consent”, feeling that binding legal standards would fall victim to a lowest common denominator approach. He has described this as “principled pragmatism” (xlii).

The finally adopted documents make it clear that the guiding principles do not amount to binding legal standards:

The Guiding Principles’ normative contribution lies not in the creation of new international law obligations but in elaborating the implications of existing standards and practices for States and businesses; integrating them within a single, logically coherent and comprehensive template; and identifying where the current regime falls short and how it should be improved.

OECD 50th Anniversary Forum

Professor Ruggie has expressed considerable pride at the reception of his work, including the endorsement of the guiding principles within organisations such as the United Nations, the EU, the International Finance Corporation and the OECD, as well as by States and certain companies (xxi). It is certainly a reflection of the professionalism and rigour he applied to the project, and the breadth and depth of the research and consultations undertaken.

The lack of enforcement mechanisms does make it easier for such uptake. Some States, Ireland among them, have been able to effectively ignore the entire process. As it becomes embedded within the United Nations processes this will become more and more difficult. Had the outcome been a international treaty, States could also have ignored it, by simply choosing not to sign or ratify it. But for those States that would have been prepared to commit themselves, the rights protections would have had a legal underpinning. Ruggie contends that the culmination of his work marked “the end of the beginning”. The continued criticism by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of the lack of binding standards for business and human rights shows that this aspect of the debate will continue to run.

‘Just Business’ by John Gerard Ruggie, is published in the Amnesty International Global Ethic Series by W.W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 2013.

One response to “‘Just Business’ – Ruggie on business and human rights at the UN

  1. Pingback: The Economics of Exploitation: Indigenous Peoples and the Impact of Resource Extraction·

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