Sad news filtered through late on Saturday evening of the death of Professor John G. Ruggie at the age of 76.

The Man

Professor Ruggie was the Berthold Beitz Research Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was also an affiliated Professor in International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. However, we in the business and human rights community knew of him through his work as one of the architects of the UN Global Compact (one of the first Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives at the UN) as well as the Millennium Development Goals. These would become the precursor for the Sustainable Development Goals that frame much of the discussion on future-proofing the economy, sustainable development and indeed business and human rights. In 2005, he was appointed as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. His initial mandate was to review the UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights. The culmination of this review can be found in the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework that he drafted, which rejected much of the Norms, but instead formed the foundations for the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Ruggie was the main architect of the UNGPs. These Guiding Principles rest on three pillars: (I) the state duty to protect human rights; (II) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and (III) the right to access an effective remedy in the event of a negative corporate human rights impact. The three pillars are sub-divided into 31 foundational and operational principles. The foundational principles for each pillar outline the duty; the operational principles provide guidance on how this duty can be fulfilled.

The Movement

The UNGPs are the centrepiece of the Business and Human Rights movement. They were borne out of dialogue between business, governments, and some civil society. They have led to the instrumentalisation of human rights through, in the main, human rights and environmental due diligence. This has led to increasingly mandatory movements on due diligence such as the much-anticipated EU due diligence law (expected this year) as well as domestic initiatives such as the French loi du vigilance and indeed many others across the EU as well.

No one would say that the UNGPs are perfect. Professor Ruggie himself characterised them as the “end of the beginning”. Indeed, work today in the space focuses on strengthening the third pillar, that of remedy for victims of corporate human rights impacts.

However, what the UNGPs and Professor Ruggie have done, is embed human rights and the language of rights into corporate capitalist discourse. He introduced his practical pragmatism to an age-old problem and his suggestions provide the opportunity to incrementally address those issues that have tainted corporate activities for decades. Moreover, the UNGPs provide us with the vocabulary to navigate corporate harms and try and create an environment where those who experience negative human rights impacts have voice, recognition and some recourse. Discussions on treaties, on the liabilities of parent companies (see here and here) would not have been possible were it not for the work of Ruggie, and the legacy he will continue to inspire.

It is up to us to continue Ruggie’s legacy, to advocate for improvements to the field, to campaign for improved state and business provisions for mitigating and remedying harms and to ensure that the voices of those impacted by corporate activity are heard.

Reflections on Professor Ruggie’s legacy and impact can be found in the testaments of Arabesque, Nadia Bernaz and . Many more will follow in the days and weeks to come. I relate to Nadia Bernaz where she noted that whereas she did not him personally, his death hit hard. I only know his work and I have heard him speak on a few occasions. My own introduction to him began as an PhD student many years ago. I was looking at Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and specifically how businesses could be encouraged towards meaningful CSR in those countries less equipped to influence corporate behaviour. The UN Global Compact shaped my earlier work, but it was the arrival of the UNGPs, and a Business and Human Rights conference in NUIG in 2011 (thanks Professor Darcy!) that precipitated a side-step into the business and human rights field. It is here that I found my academic “family”. Today, my own work focusses on how the guidelines help and place more tangible responsibilities on corporations to research, implement and mitigate their behaviours. I have been so lucky to have heard him speak – particularly in the last year where so many events were online, therefore bringing his voice to business and human rights audiences around the world. His recent publication in the Business and Human Rights Journal is worth a read and his key note address at a NOVA webinar this year on Corporate Due Diligence and Civil Liability remains incredibly empowering. He inspired to the end.

Ruggie was a man who created, defined, and shaped a movement.

Condolences to those who mourn him; his family, friends, colleagues, and those in the field for whom he so passionately advocated.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam usal.

One response to “Sad news filtered through late on Saturday evening of the death of Professor John G. Ruggie at the age of 76.

  1. Having spent over 15 years in the Business and Human Rights space, hearing John Ruggie in Bern and Geneva on many occasions, and having told many, many students about his work and vision I feel deeply saddened to hear we have lost a great man. A man who has moved this discussion forward in a way nobody could have predicted. A pragmatic person , determined to move us all to do the right thing he will be remembered for his great work.

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