Business and Human Rights – a journey but not the final destination

A very important discussion about the challenges and risks to Swiss business moderated by Dr Klaus Leisinger took place in Geneva yesterday. Professor John Ruggie, the man who has brought the discussion on business and human rights to centre stage globally, told his attentive audience about this journey. Kofi Annan appointed Ruggie as special Representative on Business and Human Rights in 2005, and he was given a complex mandate.  He was to look at multinational activity and clarify some crucial issues; corporate responsibility, complicity and sphere of influence in particular.  Professor Ruggie was then to give recommendations as to how all of these issues should be handled or regulated globally. Not an easy task!

18 June 2008- the Human Rights Council unanimously welcomed the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework recommended by John Ruggie, the UN Guiding Principles. This was the first time the UN had ever endorsed a normative text that had not been negotiated by governments.  Professor Ruggie was then asked to operationalize the framework.

Some mix of measures was required for this and Professor Ruggie talked about the approach he had taken with regards to public governance, civil governance and corporate governance.  Transnational corporations, he explained, were barely recognized in International law.  He cited the case of Shell in Nigeria and spoke about the intricacies of company law and legal personality.

The UN Guiding Principles look at the State duty to protect human rights, the duty of business to respect human rights and the rights of injured parties to remedy. What does this mean to business?

Explanation of the What and How

Business needs to understand and control their supply chains; they need to avoid contributing or causing human rights abuses.  Businesses need to carry out Human Rights Impact Assessment and examine all their business functions- operations, transport, and procurement. They need to build leverage internally, for example operations people need to align with community relations people in certain cases.  Developing metrics is important and Unilever’s exhaustive use of metrics was cited. Finally, informing and engaging with stakeholders and reporting formally are essential.

Human Rights risk factors

Companies should know who they are dealing with at all times.  The example was given of companies who need to use of security forces, the importance of monitoring was discussed. Companies must understand the nature of their own business activity. Risk maps, which measure risks to people, not just to companies, are essential.

With regards to remedies for injured parties, Professor Ruggie suggested the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)- this is something I believe, that should be thought about by business, everywhere.  “Judicial reform” he said, “takes a long time” so ADR could be very helpful to avoid big problems. . Citing a number of problem cases, the Newmont mining protest, the story of Shell and Ken Saro Wiwa John Ruggie believes that finding solutions to problems at an early stage, and grievance mechanisms at a local level, are essential.

Impact of the UNGP

John Ruggie talked about his campaigning to the EU, the OECD, the IFC and ISO and told the audience that he felt his work was showing results- the mandatory reporting for US companies in Burma, the non-financial reporting in many countries, mandatory reporting  for Chinese overseas mining companies and country National Actions plans are all underway.

A binding International Treaty on Business and Human Rights?

In June, 2014 Equator with the support of Cuba and Bolivia put forward a proposal for a binding International Treaty to regulate business globally.  Professor Ruggie thinks that such a process could take 15 years to implement and, in his opinion, the world does not have that much time.  “It would be humanly impossible to squeeze all business and human rights elements into a treaty” he said.  Too complex and conflicted, and too many bodies of law, he feels.  According to John Ruggie, the US and the European Union have refused to support this proposal as they feel it would undermine the work that has been done to date.

Leadership Opportunities for Switzerland

Professor Ruggie was asked to comment on how Switzerland could lead in the area of Business and Human Rights and he suggested that the Swiss should look at the areas of banking, commodity trading and small and medium sized businesses.  With regards to banking, the Thun group of banks which include amongst others UBS and Credit Suisse,  have done some interesting work in the area of Business and Human Rights.

The evening was rounded off with a panel discussion with participants from business, government and NGOs. In that discussion Robin Cornelius, Switcher, reiterated my belief that responsible education is crucial to the world.  Business Schools, law schools, engineering schools, all schools, must ensure that they educate responsible leaders who respect human rights wherever and whenever they do business.

Companies do not abuse Human Rights, people do! For more information on the event and speakers see here.

Conference organized by the Guilé Foundation.

Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor


1 thought on “Business and Human Rights – a journey but not the final destination

  1. Excellent report on this interesting conference attended by several members of BSL’s faculty and staff.

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