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UNRISD Deputy Director responds to Business and Human Rights Framework at “Countdown to 2011”

26 Jan 2011

UNRISD Deputy Director Peter Utting responded to the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework for Business and Human Rights at an expert panel in London on 24 January. “Countdown to 2011”, organized by the International Business Leaders Forum. Hosted by Clifford Chance, this was the first of three multi-stakeholder events bringing together companies and other key stakeholders in the business and human rights field to debate the practical challenges of operationalizing the UN Framework, discuss draft Guiding Principles for its implementation, and consider feasible scenarios for moving forward. Other speakers on the panel included representatives of Goldcorp plc, Amnesty International UK, and an advisor to John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights.

The UN Framework is composed of three pillars: 1) the state’s duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses, 2) corporations’ responsibility to respect human rights, and 3) greater access to effective remedy for victims, judicially and otherwise. This first event focused on the second pillar.

John Ruggie first brought the UN Framework to the Human Rights Council in 2008, which unanimously welcomed it and requested further work towards “operationalizing” and “promoting” it. The Human Rights Council is scheduled to consider the draft Guiding Principles in June 2011, hence the forum’s name, “Countdown to 2011”.

In the broader context of UN regulatory reform, the past decade has been marked by an upsurge in activity with regard to both legalistic and voluntary initiatives that aim to shape the behavior of transnational corporations. In general, international action has attempted to scale up and strengthen voluntary initiatives, systematize corporate social responsibility (CSR), and expand the body of international ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ law that relate to business activities, as well as oversight mechanisms.

According to Utting, the UN Framework Guiding Principles’ “originality and significance” lies in bringing together “three of the crucial institutional arrangements needed to ensure corporate accountability”: national law and public policy, meaningful voluntary CSR initiatives and active citizenship. It also identifies some of the contradictions between free market-oriented development strategies and donor conditionality, on the one hand, and the ability of states to fulfil their duty to protect human rights on the other.

Yet Utting calls the Guiding Principles “fairly tame”, in that they focus on “existing, not new, institutions”. Further, the contribution of the business responsibility pillar “lies less in the specific guidance provided, which essentially restates what is known in mainstream circles about best practices, than in the overall message, namely that businesses should engage systematically with issues and frameworks of human rights”. Such best practices relate to the need for companies to explicitly state principles and policies, implement due diligence procedures, including reporting and human rights impact assessments, manage supply chains and institute internal complaints procedures.

More than a decade of UNRISD research on CSR highlights several concerns that are only partially addressed in the draft Guiding Principles, if at all. These relate to the power, influence, impacts or footprints of global corporations; the fact that so-called CSR leaders err all too readily; and the ability of large corporations to transfer the costs and risks onto weaker stakeholders such as workers and small suppliers, particularly in developing countries. Any efforts to raise standards need to factor in these possible developmental and social contradictions and emphasize the principle of ‘shared responsibility’. Caution should also be exercised in adopting the neat categorizations of ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’ that appear in the Guiding Principles. Another concern relates to the key role of global institutions and international regulation in correcting what the Special Representative refers to as ‘institutional misalignments’ under globalization. The role assigned to multilateral institutions in the Guiding Principles is largely promotional. Aspects associated not only with binding regulation but also with oversight, remediation and critical inquiry are neglected.

In his final remarks, Utting said, “On balance, I think the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ Framework is a stroke of genius in insisting on the respective roles and complementarities of state action, voluntarism and active citizenship. But the Guiding Principles fall short, in addressing the fourth dimension of good governance, namely the role of global institutions and international oversight and regulation”. He added that in the wake of the global financial crisis, and building on the consensus that the Special Representative has skilfully crafted, the time was now right to go beyond an overtly cautionary approach and push the institutional and regulatory envelope.

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework was finalized on 21 March 2011.