(Reporting on the Ruggie Report – II)
“Unfeasible, unnecessary, and counter-productive.” That’s how the U.S. Council for International Business denounced a 2003 document titled the “Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights,” or Norms. The opposition of the U.S. government, too, was vigorous, so much so that Amnesty International publicly called upon U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to put an end to U.S.’s “undermining” the Norms.
The document that provoked so much controversy, pro and con, was the handiwork of the UN Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, made up of 26 independent human rights experts. A U.S. academic, David Weissbrodt, professor of law at the University of Minnesota, was the expert most responsible for researching and drafting the Norms.
Polarization, human rights organizations vs business, doomed the Norms, but not the basic idea behind it. Three years ago (in April 2005) UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Professor John Ruggie of Harvard to carry on what is essentially the same project. His mandate includes “identifying and clarifying standards of corporate responsibility with regard to human rights.”
Where to find those standards? Weissbrodt culled them from three dozen UN treaties and other international instruments, including ILO conventions and recommendations. Ruggie started by looking elsewhere. He commissioned a study of 320 cases of alleged corporate-related human rights abuse reported on the website of the Business and Human Rights Centre during a 33-month period that ended in December 2007. He then had each case coded for the rights the alleged abuses impacted from among those listed in seven key UN human rights documents, including the four core worker rights conventions of the ILO.
Ruggie’s empirical study identified 12 labor rights and 17 non-labor rights. That means “there are few if any internationally recognized rights [that] business cannot impact – or be perceived to impact – in some manner.” Ruggie’s conclusion: there are no limits to the rights that companies “should take into account.” On this basis, he judges that the Norms would be inadequate, even for protecting a corporation’s own interests, since they identify only “a limited set of rights for which [a corporation] may bear responsibility.”
As a result, in the report that will be considered at the June session of the Human Rights Council, Ruggie lays a heavy human rights burden on corporations. Part of it is the moral and legal responsibility of exercising "due diligence."
“To discharge the responsibility to respect [human rights] requires due diligence,” Ruggie emphasizes. One of his specific recommendations is that companies should look for guidance in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core worker rights conventions of the ILO. “The principles they embody comprise the benchmarks against which other social actors judge the human rights impacts of companies.”
Drawing on his recent research and consultations, Ruggie sets down four elements of a company’s basic due diligence process:
Written policies: To give the aspirational language meaning, more detailed guidance in specific functional areas is necessary.
Impact assessments: Many problems arise because companies fail to consider the potential human rights implications before new activities are launched. After getting launched, activities should reviewed on an on-going basis.
Integration: Isolating human rights considerations in a company is a mistake that can lead to inconsistent or contradictory actions by product developers, lobbyists, sales teams, or procurement officials. Leadership from the top is essential to embed respect for human rights throughout a company.
Tracking performance: Monitoring and auditing processes are needed to get updates of human rights performance. Confidential channels, such as hotlines, can provide useful feedback.
How will organized business react to Ruggie’s ambitious new framework? No explosion so far. Nobody should be surprised by this report, though. In his speeches, interviews, and previous reports, Ruggie has been clear about where he was heading. His style throughout the past three years has been a model of openness as he went about
-- convening 14 multi-stakeholder consultations on five continents.
-- initiating more than two dozen research projects, some with the assistance of global law firms and other legal experts, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international institutions, and committed individuals.
-- generating more than 1,000 pages of documentation as the foundation of his framework.
-- receiving about 20 formal “submissions” (comments) from governments and other stakeholders..
-- presenting two extensive reports on his mandate to the Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the Human Rights Council [in 2006 and 2007], prior to this one]
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
(Reporting on the Ruggie Report – II)