Is there an unstoppable meta-trend towards greater corporate responsibility and accountability for human rights impacts?
In my Masters course on 'Business and Human Rights' (BHR, currently afoot), I offer students a timeline of BHR. This begins with colonisation (where private listed companies sometimes led) up to the current Geneva UN negotiation towards a BHR treaty. I ask them, among other things, the question above.
The most significant positive event on the timeline, without doubt, is the unanimous endorsement in 2011 by state members of the UN Human Rights Council of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, based on a related 2008 Framework of differentiated responsibilities. This was a remarkable achievement given the difficulties of erecting a global normative framework and narrative for business responsibility, and decades of toxic, divisive ideological debate in UN forums on the issue.
Professor John Ruggie, who led the process that produced the Principles, has sadly died.
Of the many tributes and comments circulating among BHR scholars and others, these two below best capture, to my mind, the significance of Ruggie's achievement in 2011, especially given the legacy of inaction and division before 2005-2011. In particular, the significance of his work lay in the consciousness that there is no silver bullet for closing the 'governance gap' between corporate impact and corporate responsibility: a mix of measures is needed, drawing on the inputs and incentives of various actors within this regulatory ecosystem, but without obscuring that states are the ultimate duty-bearers, their national legal systems the foundation of regulatory action.
We all mourn and will miss him.
Comment 1 (Muchlinski)
A great reformer has passed. John understood what should be done and, so importantly, what could be done. As a result we have moved forward hugely in the field of business and human rights. I am old enough to remember times when talk of business having human rights obligations would be treated with polite disdain. That changed in the 1990s leading to the first international iteration of business responsibility for human rights in the UN Global Compact, of which John was one of the leading architects. Then came the impasse over the UN Norms. John was called upon by Kofi Annan to unblock the situation. He started from first principles and concrete evidence based assessments of what should, and could, be done. He was motivated by an understanding of how different methods can be used together to move forward change – formal regulation, civil society pressure and self-regulation. He has been criticised for not going far enough. That’s not the point. He got us further than anyone might have hoped in 2005. We have much to learn from his wisdom and genuine moral commitment. Thank you, John, for an outstanding lifetime of scholarship and public service.
Comment 2 (Orentlicher)
I can’t imagine a world in which those working on business and human rights are unable to turn to John for guidance. After seeing news of his passing, I re-read e-mail exchanges from the early period of his work as [UN Special Representative on BHR], and was reminded how astonishingly different this space was when he began his mandate—which is to say, I was reminded anew of how profoundly he transformed it. In an e-mail from November 2005, John aptly captured the prevailing state of play when he described a then-recent extractive industries consultation, noting “it proved impossible to have a serious discussion about standards because for the NGOs that meant the Norms and for business the Norms meant warfare.” From this starting point (and ongoing necessary debates notwithstanding), John managed to forge a remarkable measure of consensus around a brilliant core of actionable insights—standards that provided a foundation for the immense work that remained/remains to be done.