The Ruggie Report on Business and Human Rights: Lessons for Leading Companies

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Harvard professor John G. Ruggie has submitted his third and final report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in his role as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations.

The Ruggie Report is an important benchmark that captures current mainstream thinking on key business and human rights challenges. Ruggie’s recommendations are likely to influence businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations working to improve corporate human rights performance. Companies seeking to meet stakeholder expectations for corporate responsibility should become familiar with Ruggie’s work.

The critical context for Ruggie’s appointment was the contentious debate surrounding a set of Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations considered and ultimately tabled by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003. The Draft Norms catalogue a wide range of rights affected by corporate activity and propose mandatory reporting by companies, and periodic UN monitoring and verification of corporate compliance. While many human rights advocates support the legally binding “treaty” approach of the Draft Norms, the text of the Norms was opposed as insufficiently precise and unenforceable by governments and corporate interests. Opponents of the treaty approach are also reluctant to extend to private actors the same human rights responsibilities that bind governments under orthodox international law.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Professor Ruggie in 2005 to clarify key legal and policy dimensions of the international business and human rights agenda, and to make recommendations to the United Nations for the best way forward. As Annan’s Chief Advisor for strategic planning, Ruggie had been instrumental in the conception and launch of the UN Global Compact – the voluntary corporate responsibility initiative that asks companies to follow ten core principles on human rights, labor standards, the environment and anti-corruption.

The Ruggie Report seeks to reframe the polarizing issues that scuttled the Draft Norms by proposing a conceptual and policy framework that can generate concrete progress on business and human rights issues outside of a formal treaty process.

Ruggie calls for greater efforts by all actors in three areas: 1) government efforts to protect against human rights abuses by businesses; 2) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and 3) the need for more effective access to remedies for human rights abuses by victims of corporate abuses.

The Ruggie Report’s “protect, respect and remedy” framework provides a number of insights for companies that view human rights compliance as a key element of corporate responsibility:

  • Corporate human rights responsibilities go beyond legal compliance. While Ruggie emphasizes the negative duties of companies to do no harm and to avoid complicity in human rights abuses by others, he also reinforces the notion that companies must go beyond legal compliance to meet their human rights responsibilities. The “baseline responsibility of companies” to respect human rights is defined by law as well as by societal expectations. And corporate philanthropy never relieves a company of its human rights responsibilities: “A company cannot compensate for human rights harm by performing good deeds elsewhere.”

  • Invest in human rights due diligence. Companies must understand the human rights risks posed by their operations in order to meet their human rights responsibilities. Ruggie appropriately highlights the value of obtaining accurate information so that companies can “become aware of, prevent and address” human rights issues. Human rights impact assessments, like those undertaken by a few leading companies, will become an increasingly important and widespread corporate tool. Understanding a company’s “sphere of influence,” its activities, and its relationships can help determine the necessary scope of corporate human rights due diligence.
  • Ensure that corporate human rights initiatives contain effective grievance mechanisms. Ruggie calls on both governments and companies to establish non-judicial grievance mechanisms so that alleged corporate human rights abuses can be addressed. Grievance mechanisms should be legitimate, accessible, predictable, equitable, consistent with international human rights standards, and transparent. Any non-judicial grievance procedures must not foreclose legal remedies to hold companies accountable for human rights violations.
  • Consider the full range of human rights. Ruggie declined to define a narrow list of rights for which companies are responsible, arguing that corporate conduct potentially affects the full range of human rights and that companies should focus on the scope of their responsibilities with respect to any right affected by their operations. The Report nevertheless cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ; the two International Covenants, on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the core ILO Conventions as the international instruments containing the human rights standards all companies must consider in order to adequately manage their human rights responsibilities.
  • More governments are likely to align business and human rights policies. Just as companies that take corporate responsibility seriously are integrating corporate responsibility efforts across business functions, governments that take corporate human rights accountability seriously will increasingly align national policies. Ruggie offers two examples: 1) the frequent tension in host nations between investor protections and human rights protections; and 2) the lack of mandatory human rights impact assessments for companies that receive export credit support from their home governments.

Both companies and advocates have sought greater clarity on the human rights responsibilities of companies under international law. While the Ruggie Report sidesteps the issue of binding corporate accountability by emphasizing the primary legal responsibilities of national governments and proposing no new legal obligations for companies, the Report accurately reflects the state of the field and points to the most likely areas of future business and human rights initiatives.