The recording of these remarks is available here.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights are approaching the tenth year since their unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council. It is encouraging that their uptake continues apace, not only by businesses but beyond. For example, human rights factors make up the bulk of the S elements in ESG investing, with investors clamoring for more robust metrics. Also, global sports bodies, including the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, have made human rights a mandatory part of their host city agreements.
The UNGPs were conceived to generate an ongoing interactive dynamic of a smart mix of measures – voluntary and mandatory, national and international – that would strengthen the business and human rights regime over time.
But I confess that governments, with exceptions, have been a weak link in this dynamic. So, I am pleased to see action picking up on two significant fronts in the EU context.
The first is human rights due diligence. This is the foundational construct for businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their adverse human rights impacts – throughout their operations and business relationships.
The experience of the past decade has demonstrated that many multinationals understand the importance and utility of human rights due diligence. But the record also shows shortcomings and weaknesses in implementation.
In response, Germany, like several other governments, is giving serious consideration to making human rights due diligence mandatory, as foreshadowed in its 2016 National Action Plan. Similarly, mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence is on the legislative agenda of the European Commission.
I appreciate that many details still need to be worked out. Perhaps none is more important than the question of liability. It may be helpful for me to recall that the UNGPs foresaw the possibility of liability, and how it might play out in practice. The Commentary to UNGP 17 state that:
Conducting appropriate human rights due diligence should help business enterprises address the risk of legal claims against them by showing that they took every reasonable step to avoid involvement with an alleged human rights abuse.
Of course, case-specific facts would also be considered in any such assessment.
A second area that shows progress is the strengthening of non-financial disclosure requirements, including on human rights. Indeed, there is a rush into this space by private international standard setting bodies, large asset managers, alliances of consulting firms and the like, all wanting a piece of the ESG standards market.
Here the EU, as the world’s largest trading bloc, has a golden opportunity to provide authoritative standards, which inevitably would have international spillover effects.
Perhaps there is still time for the Germany Presidency in collaboration with the Commission to establish a measure of policy coherence across the related EU initiatives, so as not to contribute to overwhelming businesses with potentially overlapping or, worse, inconsistent requirements.
Progress on these two fronts would contribute significantly to the overarching concern of this conference with promoting decent work in supply chains.
Indeed, I believe it would go even further and help inform the grand debate taking place on both sides of the Atlantic on the social purpose of the corporation, on the need for it to better serve a broad array of stakeholders in addition to shareholders.
So in conclusion, thanks again, and I wish you every success on the journey ahead.
John G. Ruggie, the Berthold Beitz Research Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has served as UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, and as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business & Human Rights. He chairs the Board of Shift.