Thursday, April 24, 2008

Multinationals, Human Rights, and UN – III

(Reporting on the Ruggie Report – III)

Can anything concrete come out of the report that Professor John Ruggie prepared for the June session of the UN Human Rights Council? After all, the report offers just a “framework” for business and human rights, not a program of action.

Yet the report is far from a compilation of abstractions. I find that it contains a bundle of specific policy ideas that, if taken seriously by the Council and even only a few major UN members, will improve the protection of individuals, organizations, and weak governments against what Ruggie calls “corporate-related human rights harm.”

Take Ruggie’s incisive criticism of the present foreign investment system. He describes how trade and investment laws have expanded the legal rights of foreign investors without matching responsibilities, and thereby undermined the State’s duty to protect human rights, “skewing the balance between the two.”

This imbalance creates human rights predicaments for both “host States” and “home States.” A major example cited by Ruggie: “host States can find it difficult to strengthen domestic social and environmental standards, including those related to human rights, without fear of foreign investor challenges, which can take place under binding international arbitration” – that is, under a procedure that often favors the investor, a flaw not mentioned by Ruggie.

His report provides enough information on this imbalance to strengthen already existing campaigns to correct it. And the various issues that Ruggie highlights should be instructive to Congress next year when it formulates U.S. trade and investment policy to replace “trade promotion”legislation and other policies conducive to moving jobs offshore. Ruggie’s insights will also be useful in the almost certain renegotiation next year of the 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which set the pattern for the imbalances written into subsequent U.S. bilateral trade agreements.

Another concrete matter covered in Ruggie’s “framework” concerns the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which the United States and 39 other industrialized states are members. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are “currently the most widely applicable set of government-endorsed standards related to corporate responsibility and human rights,” as Ruggie points out.

In analyzing the Guidelines, he explains why and how they should be revised to make their human rights provisions more specific, and how their administration needs improvement. The case he makes is sure to assist trade union leaders and others who have long pressed for similar reforms.

So the report does indeed have much potential value on the practical level. Moving from the potential to the actual, of course, will depend on a variety of “actors,” or “stakeholders,” including the institution that commissioned the report, the Human Rights Council.

Ruggie concludes his report with this sentence: “The Human Rights Council can make a singular contribution to closing the governance gaps in business and human rights by supporting the framework, inviting its further elaboration, and fostering its uptake by all relevant social actors.”

Note the term that appears in that sentence and elsewhere in the report – governance gaps. The gaps exist “between the scope and impact of economic forces and actors, and the capacity of societies to manage their adverse consequences….How to narrow and ultimately bridge the gaps in relation to human rights is our fundamental challenge.”

He restates, and reemphasizes, that challenge in his concluding paragraphs: “As has happened throughout history, rapid market expansion has also created governance gaps in numerous policy domains: gaps between the scope of economic activities and actors, and the capacity of political institutions to manage their adverse consequences. The area of business and human rights is one such domain.”

The greatest value of Ruggie’s 28-page report, in my view, is that he contributes much toward an evolving paradigm of business and human rights under globalization. Policymakers need such a conceptual framework to make sustainable progress toward integrating business and human rights in principle and in practice.

Print Page

No comments: