Resignation of UN Working group member raises serious questions for business and human rights

States set a bad example on human rights for business, the profit motive of business requires that they be bound by laws not norms, and the United Nations is “bipolar” in dealing with business and human rights. These are the views of Puvan Selvanathan, who has tendered his resignation from the United Nations Working Group on business and human rights and takes up a UN staff position. In an open letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council, Selvanathan offers some strong critiques of the current approach of both States and the UN itself to the issue of business and human rights:

I believe that if a business can operate ‘legally’ yet impact negatively on human rights then that is a simple failure of a state’s duties. The material irrelevance of ‘domestic’ or ‘multinational’, the cowardice that shrouds extraterritorial impunity and the perversion of international dispute settlements are all contrivances of state-sponsored systems that allow companies to behave badly.

He also weighed in on the debates regarding mandatory measures to address business behaviour:

I have come to understand that businesses are machines designed to do only certain things and will always strive to do them as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. The loudest calls within a company for higher goals are distant echoes if even a whisper for profit exists. I am deeply wary of CEOs who claim to be guided by a moral compass because they ultimately only navigate waters their shareholders chart.

[…] I suggest that if states wish for businesses to respect human rights then what that constitutes must be made mandatory. Otherwise it is just voluntary. Legally required standards compel compliance in business operations to a meticulous degree. Business respects boundaries and business craves clarity. Companies are our own social creations and reflect our own values. They are defined by the rules that we choose to lay down. We hope they create wealth, drive economies and are not ‘evil’. But if they are because there are no rules or consequences, then we are responsible.

In his letter, Selvanathan highlights the differing approaches of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the UN Global Compact, claiming that neither “understands what motivates companies or how they are incentivised”.

The UN Working Group on business and human rights has become the focal point for efforts to put the Guiding Principles into practice. This letter of resignation by one of its members should be read by all who take an interest in the efforts at the international level to ensure business respect for human rights and that States meet their legally-mandated duty to protect human rights.


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