Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


A clear way forward, but with wiggle room

May 2011

John Ruggie’s final report on business and human rights, expected to be passed by the UN’s Human Rights Council next month, contains 27 pages of ‘guiding principles’. What do the experts think of them – and the impact they will have?

Luke Wilde, director, TwentyFifty consultancy (UK)
The principles do not create any new legal obligations, but they do establish clear benchmarks for states, and for businesses. They clearly delineate the respective roles of the state, and of business, and give a clear indication of what the corporate responsibility to respect human rights requires companies to do in practice. These are benchmarks that business, and governments, must now expect campaigners, local communities, and consumers to judge them against. The principles are already informing the development of key international frameworks which shape the business operating environment, such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards, and the Global Reporting Initiative.

Emily Howie, director of advocacy and strategic litigation, Human Rights Law Centre (Australia)
While the guiding principles are welcome and articulate important norms for states and businesses, in some respects they are weaker than many in the NGO sector may have hoped. For example, they have not articulated that states should require due diligence from corporations as part of the state duty to protect, even though corporations are required to undertake due diligence as part of the responsibility to protect. There is also no requirement for states to regulate the extra-territorial activity of corporations. Instead, states are asked to ’set out clearly the expectation’ that corporations will respect human rights. Thirdly, although the guiding principles set out the types of remedies that should be available, they do not articulate the important and uncontroversial norm that there is a right to a remedy for human rights violations.

David Schilling, director of human rights, Interfaith Centre on Corporate Responsibility (US)
The guiding principles provide an authoritative guide for companies of all sizes, in all sectors on how to prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts. This global framework is a significant breakthrough and an indispensible resource for investors in assessing the human rights performance of companies and supporting greater accountability and transparency – not only in their own operations but in their supply chains.

Christine Jesseman, director, pro bono and human rights, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr law firm (South Africa)
The guiding principles are substantial, should be considered in their entirety, and interpreted, developed and applied within a particular context. Human rights should be a consideration throughout the business value chain, be it in the form of a review, an impact assessment or due diligence. These are in turn informed by a comprehensive human rights policy and employees and strategic management responsible for decision making, appropriately skilled and accountable for implementation. Such an approach is not solely informed by a risk mitigation analysis, but from the perspective of responsibility and a strategic and operational understanding of the impact of business upon society and the role of that business therein.

Scott Jerbi, director of communications, Institute for Human Rights and Business (UK)
A key question for the time ahead is: ‘are corporate leaders ready for the guiding principles?’ The short and perhaps unsurprising answer is that most leading companies have a lot of work ahead of them. Available information indicates that only a very small number of major companies have developed their own human rights policy statement in keeping with the principles.

Chris Jochnick, director, private sector department, Oxfam America (US)
With the guiding principles in hand, the human rights community, including Oxfam, continues to push for
stronger, more obligatory language. The principles allow for too much wiggle room – too many ‘shoulds’ in place of ‘shalls’ – and too little support for the actual rights of individuals and communities. But that shouldn’t take away from what’s on offer. At the end of the day, Ruggie’s framework and principles have to be judged on the basis of whether they succeed in driving more energy and more effective attention to real accountability for companies. They will take on more ‘obligatory’ force as they are incorporated into other existing standards, processes, laws and contracts.

United Nations | Global | Human rights

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