March 19, 2007
Ruggie Report Says Voluntary Human Rights Initiatives Set Stage for Binding Global Standards
by Bill Baue
While the report finds significant flaws with voluntary collaborations between corporations and
civil society, they currently fill the gap created by nation-states failing to protect human
Harvard Professor John
Ruggie recently released the much-anticipated report that he will present
to the United Nations Human Rights Council later this month in
fulfillment of his two-year mandate
Representative to the Secretary-General on business and human rights. Prof. Ruggie expresses
some frustration (felt more sharply by victims of human rights abuses and those in the human rights
advocacy community) over failing to find legally binding international human rights standards that
apply directly to corporations. However, international law does require national
governments to hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses, an area Prof. Ruggie finds
"The report is huge because it's the first evidence-based analysis and
survey compiling what business and governments are doing on human rights," said Susan Aaronson, a
professor at the George
Washington University School of Business and author of the upcoming book Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to
Weigh Human Rights Concerns in Policymaking. "One of the most shocking findings in
Ruggie's report is that states have not met their duty to regulate corporations to protect human
"Companies are going to increasingly understand that they need to lobby states to
set more clear regulation on human rights--they did it on corruption, and more recently on climate
change and greenhouse gas emissions," Prof. Aaronson told SocialFunds.com. "The best way to have
stable economic growth is to have clear international standards."
In addition to assessing
"hard law" requirements, Prof. Ruggie also examines so-called "soft law" mechanisms, or those that
"derive normative force through recognition of social expectations." Foremost among these are what
Prof. Ruggie characterizes as "hybrid" multi-stakeholder voluntary initiatives.
Ruggies cites three as representing best practice: the Extractive Industries Transparency
Initiative (EITI) whereby companies
disclose payments to host governments, the Kimberley Process that
seeks to stem the flow of conflict diamonds, and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human
Rights that promotes human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) in the extractive sector.
However, Prof. Ruggie finds these self-regulation schemes lacking in accountability.
"John's report got the balance about right on voluntary initiatives, which represent a
double-edged sword," said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for social research and policy at
the Calvert Group, a socially responsible
investing (SRI) firm. Mr. Freeman was instrumental in creating the Voluntary Principles when he
serves as deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
(DRL.) "We've got to push national
governments to further codify and enforce laws related to business responsibility for human rights,
but that can't be an excuse for slacking on hardening these voluntary initiatives on accountability
mechanisms on the one hand or substituting for international binding standards on the other."
Prof. Ruggie suggests that voluntary initiatives are drawing a blueprint of the architecture
for binding standards.
"As they strengthen their accountability mechanisms, they also
begin to blur the lines between the strictly voluntary and mandatory spheres for participants,"
Prof. Ruggie writes. "Once in, exiting can be costly."
Just as participation can be
self-reinforcing, so too can accountability be self-imposed. Prof. Ruggie cites the efficacy of
human rights impact assessments.
"Several SRI funds strongly promote human rights impact
assessments coupled with community engagement and dialogue," Prof. Ruggie writes, referring to a letter
submitted to him by faith-based institutional investors and SRI members of the Interfaith Coalition
on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR.) "However,
relatively few firms conduct these assessments routinely--and only a handful seem ever to have done
a fully fledged human rights impact assessment (HRIA), in contrast to including selected human
rights criteria in broader social/environmental assessments."
"And apparently only one
company--BP--has ever made public even a summary of an HRIA," writes Prof. Ruggie, referring to a
document co-authored by Mr. Bennett assessing the Tangguh LNG Project for BP Indonesia. "No single measure would
yield more immediate results in the human rights performance of firms than conducting such
assessments where appropriate."
If HRIAs are so effective, why are they so rare?
"There aren't more HRIA's happening because not enough of a fire has been lit under companies
in industries where they are particularly necessary," Mr. Freeman told SocialFunds.com. "I would
like to think HRIAs will become standard operating procedure over the next decade not only for
extractive industries but even in beverage industries, for example."
initiatives exhibit four additional blind spots, according to Prof. Ruggie: they currently do not
apply to small and medium-sized enterprises, or to developing country firms, or to state-owned
enterprises in emerging economies, and determined laggards find ways to avoid scrutiny. Despite
these problems with voluntary initiatives, he still sees his mandate as pushing society toward the
tipping point where voluntary initiatives blur into becoming standard practice.
comment about getting to the tipping point I think reveals his thinking about the strategic
question, How do we secure better compliance with global human rights standards affecting
business?" states Mort Winston, chair of the department of philosophy and religion and director of
the Center for the Study of Social Justice at The
College of New Jersey, and former chair of Amnesty International USA. "His view, which I share, is that
it is necessary to get to a critical mass of companies that have adopted and are practicing
voluntary CSR before one has any hope of generating the political will among nation states to enact
global legal obligations that are directly binding on corporations."
Prof. Ruggie ends
the report by not-so-coyly noting he "would welcome a one-year extension to complete the
assignment" by submitting "recommendations in his next (and final) report to the Council," a
sentiment almost universally shared in the human rights advocacy community.
"In the likely
and hopeful event that his mandate is extended, there will be an expectation that he will outline
broadly applicable standards that will address what he calls the protection gaps for victims and
predictability gaps for companies," states Mr. Freeman.