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Trillium News

September 15, 2011

United Nations Releases Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Susan Baker

Good news came out of the United Nations this summer that has positive implications for shareholder advocates and activists working to promote and protect human rights.  The UN Human Rights Council (formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights) endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework.[1] Six years in the making, the Guiding Principles are the first set of standards ever endorsed by the UN that examine the intersection of business and human rights.

Unlike the UN Global Compact, a set of voluntary business principles introduced in 2000 to address human rights, labor standards, the environment and anti-corruption strategies, the Guiding Principles were born of a mandate by UN member governments. Developed under the leadership of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on  human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie, their purpose is to answer the question of what states and businesses need to do to ensure business respect for human rights. The answer provides investors as well as governments with a set of standards against which to hold companies accountable.

To develop this comprehensive framework, Ruggie, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, undertook research that included mapping patterns of alleged human rights abuses by business, and examining standards of international human rights law and international criminal law. From numerous meetings across 47 countries, Professor Ruggie concluded that the public and private initiatives working to uphold human rights hadn’t yet reached a scale sufficient to change market behavior. The Guiding Principles were designed to act as an authoritative high level guidance that provided room for tailoring at the industry level. They emphasize stakeholder engagement and collaboration among governments, businesses, and civil society, anchored by three pillars of responsibility:

1.    The state duty to protect against human rights abuses from third parties — including business — through policies, regulation, and adjudication;

2.    The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, implementing due diligence to avoid infringement and address adverse impacts; and,

3.    Access to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses.

The thirty-one Guiding Principles aligned with these pillars give states and businesses a roadmap. The centerpiece of the corporate responsibility to respect is a due diligence process that includes adopting a policy, assessing human rights risk, acting on the findings, and tracking and reporting on performance. Investors have worked for decades to bring human rights assessment into the realm of reporting and accountability.  We think the Guiding Principles provides a coherent platform that can compel companies to manage and report their human rights policies and performance.

The office of the UN Special Representative has already compiled 15 pages of references to instances that illustrate a practical application of the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, in whole or in part, within the context of a particular organization[2] Among the references are companies that have said they have applied or plan to apply  the Framework to their operations. These include Citigroup and Phillips Van Heusen.

Investor actions are also referenced, including Trillium’s work in 2010, partnering with Domini Social Investments and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, to pressured Toyota to influence an affiliate to divest from its joint venture with Myanmar Suzuki Motor. The joint venture was directly aiding the Burmese regime notorious for its wide-scale human rights abuses and suppression of democracy.  Prodding Toyota to act on its duty to respect human rights and understand the reputational risks at stake were the levers that led to the successful outcome.

Spreading Influence

Importantly, the Global Reporting Initiative’s latest revision of its reporting guidelines were amended earlier this year to address theProtect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework and now include disclosure expectations around due diligence and access to grievance and remedy.

The Social Sustainability Resource Guide: Building Sustainable Communities through Multi-Party Collaboration, published this summer by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), makes a strong case for elevating the importance of measuring social impacts. The authors site the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework for business and human rights, underscoring that an emphasis on assessing potential and actual human rights impacts is directly relevant to measuring social sustainability impacts.[3]

Some organizations involved in developing the framework were not satisfied with the final result.  “In effect, the council endorsed the status quo: a world where companies are encouraged, but not obliged, to respect human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Guidance isn’t enough – we need a mechanism to scrutinize how companies and governments apply these principles.”[4]

The Child Rights Information Network (CRIN), a network of organizations that support the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, drew attention to what it perceived as a lack of attention in the document to children’s rights. “Regrettably, upon review of the Guiding Principles as submitted to and adopted by the Human Rights Council, it is clear that children’s rights continue to be ignored,” the organization stated in a June 2011 press release.[5]

Christine Bader, past Advisor to UN Special Representative John Ruggie, acknowledged the criticism, but defended the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement. “Even if a milestone like endorsement of the Guiding Principles is considered a victory, it’s within the context of a much longer journey….The Guiding Principles don’t suddenly solve all of the world’s problems; rather, they’re meant to serve as a common foundation for all that is needed next, including sector-specific guidance, capacity building, and ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogue.”[6]

It is important that the Guiding Principles be viewed as more than a modest attempt to improve corporate responsibility around human rights abuse. A five-person working group will meet this fall to develop ways to promote the Guiding Principles. The Human Rights Council has also asked the working group to make recommendations aimed at improving victims’ access to remedies. A Forum on Business and Human Rights for governments, business, and others is expected to meet annually and act as an evaluative body, taking a broad look at how the guiding principles are being carried out.  This working group will need to produce timely and substantive communications in order to temper skepticism.

Trillium strongly believes that the promotion and protection of human rights specifically, and social sustainability generally, need greater participation from the corporate sector. The Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework will give shareholder advocates and human rights activist an authoritative standard that can be used to measure a company’s progress on human rights. Multi-stakeholder collaboration strategies offered by the ICCR Resource Guide and other complementary resources can help to sharpen the guidance corporations need to embrace. The work of discerning the leaders and laggards has become more achievable with the publication of these efforts.


[1] http://www.business-humanrights.org/media/documents/ruggie/ruggie-guiding-principles-21-mar-2011.pdf.

[2] http://www.business-humanrights.org/media/documents/applications-of-framework-jun-2011.pdf.

[3] http:/www.iccr.org/publications/2011SSRG.pdf.

[4] http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/06/16/un-human-rights-council-weak-stance-business-standards.

[5] http://www.crin.org/violence/search/closeup.asp?infoID=25245

[6] http://csrwiretalkback.tumblr.com/post/7316048731/ngos-dissatisfied-fine-with-me.

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