Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Unfortunately, Ruggie hasn’t told us anything we don’t already know

April 2011

It’s hard not to be disappointed by the end-product of John Ruggie’s six-year investigation into human rights and business (see page one). There’s no doubt that the process surrounding the United Nations special representative’s consultations has added significantly to the understanding of human rights issues as they are affected by business – and has fostered a calmer atmosphere in which discussion on the topic is now carried out. We need to remember that before Ruggie was appointed, debate about the creation of norms in this field had become dangerously febrile. To that extent he has made a success of his brief.

But the contents of his final report are unlikely to take us far from the point of his departure several years ago. Boiled down to their essentials, Ruggie’s principles, allied to the framework he published in 2008, tell us that the primary responsibility for upholding human rights should fall on states, that businesses must nonetheless assume responsibility for seeing there are no infringements, and that there need to be mechanisms available to provide redress for victims of corporate abuses. These are all fair points, but are nothing we didn’t know already – in fact they were widely accepted before Ruggie embarked on his quest.

Most of the rest of what he says is in a similar, familiar vein. Companies, for instance, are told they should have public policies on human rights, and that they must ‘identify, prevent, mitigate and account for’ any negative impacts in this area. Many already do this, and if not, have long been urged to do so by parties other than Ruggie.

The only notable novelty in his report is that companies or industry sectors should contemplate setting up their own grievance mechanisms for alleged human rights victims. Whatever the difficulties Ruggie hopes would be avoided thereby, this potentially throws up new problems. EP has argued that the complaints mechanism connected to the OECD guidelines for multinationals is the best base on which to build a proper international system of redress. Ruggie’s idea of companies going it alone may well complicate the picture, especially as he also suggests that individual countries could set up their own mechanisms too. This could lead to a hotchpotch of different systems being operated across various sectors and jurisdictions, all with differing set-ups, rules and outcomes. In other words, the one fresh proposal put forward by the special representative looks to be flawed.

The unfortunate conclusion, therefore, must be that although some good things have come out of Ruggie’s mission, it is notable more for what it has been unable to deliver than what it has made clear. Worse than that, if one of his key recommendations is taken up, then he may have delivered a recipe for further confusion.

Peter Mason | Global | Human rights

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