The UN special representative is trying to recast the business & human rights debate. Will he succeed? Critical Resource catches up with him.
Some said that Harvard Professor John Ruggie was taking on an impossible task when he started his role three years ago as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Business & Human Rights. This was a topic on which NGOs and businesses seemed irreconcilably opposed, making any progress appear unlikely.
But with the publication of his most recent report and the renewal of his mandate by the UN for another three years, the chances that Prof Ruggie will disprove the sceptics are looking stronger at least. He has set out a broad, consensus-building framework for taking his work forward. This has three basic elements: states’ duty to protect against rights abuses by third parties, companies’ responsibility to respect human rights, and strengthening access to remedies. In terms of companies’ responsibilities, he argues that more “due diligence” on human rights is particularly important.
What comes next, however, will be very closely watched. The UN Human Rights Council now wants Prof Ruggie to find ways to “operationalise” the general principles in his framework. Critical Resource caught up with Prof Ruggie shortly before the Human Rights Council reviewed his most recent report.
Q: You’ve previously pointed out that extractive sector firms are more often accused of involvement in human rights abuses than firms in most other industries. Is this because the extractive sector is on balance less ethical than other industries, or just because it operates more in poorly governed parts of the world?
A: They operate in tough neighborhoods. And few if any companies initially were remotely prepared for the challenges they encountered on the ground. Some are learning faster than others.
Q: The past decade has seen a ratcheting up of human rights pressures and expectations on big companies. Do you think these pressures will continue to rise – or fall off now that many parts of the world are entering an economic downturn?
A: Human rights pressures today are where climate change was a decade ago. I see a secular trend, not one related to the economic climate.
Q: In your latest report to the UN your main proposal to advance progress on business and human rights is the broad adoption of a framework of “protect, respect and remedy”. Isn’t what is needed in this area very detailed practical proposals rather than a conceptual framework?
A: Practical proposals have to be based on a common set of principles if they are to cohere and produce cumulative progress. If the Human Rights Council agrees to the framework, the next step will be to “operationalize” the principles further.
Q: One of your main overall recommendations for companies is that they should carry out “due diligence” on human rights. Why do you see this as so important?
A: There is no other way for companies to manage and mitigate risks – waiting for a crisis to occur and then trying to pick up the pieces is not a viable strategy; it’s simply bad management practice.
Q: If you were the CEO of big oil or mining company what are the three most important practical management steps you would take on human rights?
A: 1. I’d make sure that my due diligence processes included an analysis of the country context, the likely human rights impact of our business activities; and how we might get into trouble because of the various relationships we have in connection with our business activities.
2. I’d make sure that my people are adequately trained to deal with any issues that arise under (1).
3. And I’d make sure that their incentive structure as managers adequately reflects how they handle these challenges.
Q: The behaviour of smaller or state-owned companies in each sector is often more open to criticism than that of large, high-profile companies. Can anything really be done to change the behaviour of these laggards?
A: The same people who make that argument will also tell you that in economics a rising tide lifts all boats. In this case, they are often right. There is scholarly evidence of transnationals leading, if not a race, then at least movement, to higher standards, eventually leading to some form of codification that provides a level playing field.