One year on from their formal adoption, the Ruggie Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are being slowly absorbed by governments, business federations and companies

It was a process to launch another process. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, formulated under the steady hand Harvard law school professor John Ruggie, were six years in the making, and were finally endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in mid-2011. But this was just the prelude to another long period of work: the take-up and implementation of the principles by companies and governments.

This next phase will be “a process of some years”, says Caroline Rees, formerly Ruggie’s lead adviser and now president of Shift, a non-profit consultancy set up to advance the guiding principles. The Ruggie framework “is not a quick plug-in solution”. For a large multinational, Rees says, three to five years will be needed to fully grasp and adopt the principles into management practices.

The gradual nature of the take-up means that, one year on from the formal endorsement of the guiding principles, groundbreaking initiatives and projects might seem to be distinctly lacking. For example, one of the central planks of the principles is that victims of human rights abuses should be able to have recourse to fair and transparent judicial and non-judicial grievance procedures. But there is little evidence so far of these at work, directly connected to the guiding principles.

But it would be a mistake to think that the principles have been left on the shelf. Their establishment in practice is like the construction of several spiders’ webs, with the end result hopefully being to catch all.

John Ruggie tells Ethical Corporation that the principles provide “relatively high-level guidance,” and must be “further refined for different sectors and regions, for different scales of operation and so on”.

Companies and business associations have started to align their practices with the principles, Ruggie says. “Key elements have also been adopted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union, the International Organisation for Standardisation (in ISO 26000) and the International Finance Corporation. Other regional bodies, including ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the African Union, are also in the game. Each of these has its own implementation modalities and knock-on effects. The roll-out of the principles will continue to roll on.”

Three pillars

The guiding principles rest on three pillars (see box). The first concerns governments: that they have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses. The second concerns companies: that they must respect human rights. The third concerns both: that there should be effective grievance procedures.

The most visible initiatives in the year since the adoption of the guiding principles have been taken by groups of states. The European commission, the EU’s executive arm, for example, in an October 2011 policy paper on corporate social responsibility, promised to work with specific sectors on the guiding principles. The commission also asked EU governments to submit by the end of 2012 national action plans showing how they would implement the principles.

The commission has since said it will work on sector-specific guidance in pilot projects with the oil and gas industry, employment and recruitment agencies, and the ICT sector, which has been the focus of concerns about its use of low-cost manufacturing in poorer countries. The commission has also promised guidance for small and medium-sized companies.

The commission’s sector-specific projects are coordinated by Shift and the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB). Shift’s Rees says: “A wide array of sectors are starting to look at [the guiding principles].” She adds that supra-national organisations such as the EU are “such a multiplier of this”.

John Morrison, executive director of the IHRB, says that the commission’s sectoral approach is one of “numerous efforts … to apply the UN guiding principles in particular industry contexts”. He cites a project involving the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) and the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) as providing evidence that “efforts to work constructively with the UN framework” are under way.

The over-initialled ICAR/ECCJ/CNCA project is mainly aimed at getting governments to require companies to “engage in due diligence activity in the human rights area”, so that corporate projects are subject to the same degree of human rights scrutiny as they currently are over workers’ rights or anti-corruption issues. Like the European commission pilot projects, the due diligence project promises results by the end of 2012.

The guiding principles have also started to be written into top-level political statements that, in theory at least, should guide the activity in potentially risky areas. In response to the granting of greater political freedom in Burma, for example, the EU, in April 2012, suspended most of its trade sanctions for a year. European companies that want to invest in Burma should do so according to the guiding principles, and other standards, the European council, which represents member state governments, says.

Morrison says the guiding principles are an “authoritative baseline” that mean “we don’t any longer need to discuss questions that can slow meaningful progress, such as whether human rights standards in fact apply to all companies”.

Trickle down

But it is “too soon to point to specific examples of good business practice that have emerged as a result of the adoption of the UN guiding principles”, he adds. Rees concurs, saying it is too early to make a judgment about the principles “in terms of the impact on rights on the ground”. But the weaving of the spiders’ webs has started.

Business federations are tailoring the guiding principles to their particular sectoral needs, but again, the trickle down to actual examples of the principles in practice has barely started. The International Council on Mining and Metals, for example, recently published a guide on “integrating human rights due diligence into corporate risk management processes”. This explains the implications of the guiding principles for mining companies, and deals with some sensitive issues, such as operating in conflict zones or trying to maintain the corporate stance on human rights in countries with repressive regimes.

For a company, the main immediate task is to review its operations to determine, in the words of one executive “how Ruggie-proof we are”. This might involve time-consuming examination of complex supply chains, and bringing to the attention of senior management any shortcomings that are uncovered. Some fundamental changes might also have to be made, such as the opening up of the company to grievance procedures in cases of human rights violations.

Risk assessment catalyst

Miguel Pestana, vice-president for global external affairs at Unilever, which has supported the development of the guiding principles from an early stage, says that Ruggie’s work “has been the main catalyst” for promoting corporate risk assessment of exposure to human rights problems. The principles promote good business practice by making the risk assessment more systematic.

A review of operations in the light of the guiding principles is likely to show that a corporation is already doing many things right. Pestana gives the example of gender equality. “For Unilever that is seen as a factor in retention of our people, rather than strictly an element of human or labour rights,” he says.

In other cases, difficult issues might arise. For example, a supplier might be found to be using child labour, but simply cutting the contract without consideration of the impact it would have might undermine the broader human rights cause. “You have to make an assessment on a case by case basis,” Pestana says. The guiding principles are “very useful in helping us make some of those determinations”.

Companies such as Unilever have done vast amounts of work already on corporate responsibility. In Unilever’s case, this has been distilled into the company’s Sustainable Living Plan, adopted at the end of 2010, and which already includes elements such as “sustainable sourcing” and “better livelihoods” for developing country smallholders and small-scale distributors.

The company does not want to establish parallel procedures to take account of the guiding principles, but would rather integrate them into what exists already. “This is a work in progress for us,” Pestana says.

Rory Sullivan, a senior research fellow at the University of Leeds, and a regular contributor to Ethical Corporation, says the principles are a “management framework” that “fit into an enlightened management perspective”. Implementation of the guiding principles, either through the development and imposition of standards by governments, or through the reviewing of processes by companies, needs more than the year that has passed so far since their UN-level endorsement.

But even once the management framework has been upgraded, another process will have to start, Sullivan says. A rigorous connection between the guiding principles and the real world will have to be established through performance standards, which will need to be monitored and enforced at different levels. And that will be another long-term process.

The principles distilled

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council on June 16 2011. As the full name suggests, the guiding principles are designed to make more concrete an earlier piece of work, also by John Ruggie, which was the definition of a broad framework for human rights based on three over-arching principles:

1. The state has a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business

2. Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights

3. Victims of abuses should have access to effective judicial and non-judicial remedies.

There are 31 guiding principles, among them that “human rights” are understood to be those that have been expressed in international standards such as the International Bill of Human Rights. Companies that want to stay on the right side of Ruggie are also required to communicate, providing “information that is sufficient to evaluate the adequacy of an enterprise’s response to the particular human rights impact involved”.

The guiding principles are available here

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