Human rights: business responsibility

What are the human rights responsibilities of corporations? Christine Bader, BP’s manager of policy development currently on secondment to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for business & human rights, provides an overview of the current debate.

Business is increasingly multinational, and corporations from all countries continue to grow in scale and scope. But with this expanded breadth, business can increasingly impact on human rights, both positively and negatively.

Companies deliver goods and services that enable a higher standard of living – energy, food, medical products – but have also been linked to abuses, such as horrific labour conditions in factories, and violence committed by security forces under the guise of protecting company facilities.

In response to increasing awareness about the potential for corporate-related abuses, there is serious debate taking place over human rights standards for companies: what are they today – and what should they be?

The first attempt at the UN level to draft a set of global standards went down in flames, as it attempted to saddle companies with the same comprehensive responsibilities of governments. Business lobbying groups were opposed, governments largely disinterested, despite some nongovernmental organisations calling upon them to adopt the draft as law.

Need for clarity
In 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights dismissed that proposal, but recognising that there was still a need for clarity, recommended to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan that he appoint a Special Representative on the topic. Annan selected Harvard professor John Ruggie.

Ruggie began his enquiry and found a train wreck: some human rights organisations were still promoting the defunct UN draft; business interests were insisting that human rights are solely the responsibility of states and no new standards are necessary; and governments continued to watch from the sidelines.

So Ruggie went back to basic principles: what is the problem we need to solve? What have UN committees charged with interpreting human rights conventions said about corporations – not what some wish they would say, but what have they actually said? What legal precedent is there in this area? How are governments ensuring good behaviour by companies within their jurisdictions? How are companies themselves defining their responsibilities and managing their impacts?

Over the subsequent three years, Ruggie convened 14 multi-stakeholder consultations on five continents; conducted numerous research projects, many in partnership; received dozens of submissions from experts and interested parties; and reported three times to the Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council).

His most recent report outlined what he found missing from the debate: a conceptual framework made up of fundamental principles that has broad acceptance, upon which more specific solutions could be built. That framework is “protect, respect, remedy”.

State duty
First, the state duty to protect its citizens against corporate-related human rights abuses. It is a well-understood principle, but governments rarely enact it, whether because they want foreign investment or don’t want to inhibit their companies working overseas.

Second, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, because that is the baseline expectation that society has of business.

Third, greater access to remedy, because at present, victims of corporate-related abuse have little recourse other than litigation – which is complicated and expensive – or starting a boycott, which is hardly effective for redressing actual harm.

The Human Rights Council welcomed the framework and by acclamation extended Ruggie’s mandate for another three years, specifically to develop practical recommendations within each of the
three principles.

While his recommendations do not have the immediate force of law, he is conducting his mandate with so much outreach and consultation that his findings both reflect and shape what the world expects of business.

It would behove all companies to understand this debate and consider how they are ensuring respect for human rights in their own operations. As the world prepares to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this December, companies should establish a human rights policy if they don’t already have one, and stand ready to demonstrate how they are fulfilling their responsibility to respect human rights

Source: BP Magazine issue four 2008

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