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Scott Jerbi

Scott Jerbi is Director of Communications for IHRB

UN Adopts Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights - What Comes Next?

17 June 2011 | by Scott Jerbi

The unfolding business and human rights story reached an important threshold this week with the unanimous endorsement by the United Nations Human Rights Council of Guiding Principles for the implementation of the UN’s Protect, Respect, Remedy policy framework on business and human rights.

Six years of tireless efforts by UN Special Representative John Ruggie and his team resulted in a major accomplishment – inter-governmental endorsement of what is now the new global standard for business and human rights, and a new mandate to carry the work forward over the coming years.

How important is the Council’s decision and what does it mean for the future?

First, this is robust backing: with 28 countries joining the 12 cross-regional co-sponsors of the resolution and passage without a vote, the Human Rights Council’s endorsement of the Guiding Principles could not be stronger.

UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council’s endorsement of the Guiding Principles could not be stronger.

Universal support is vital in the work ahead to embed the UN Protect, Respect, Remedy framework at every level.

Fact checkers will need to look more carefully, but this appears to have been the first time in the sixty plus year history of the UN human rights system that member states have unanimously endorsed a set of principles they themselves had not negotiated.

In an often-divided inter-governmental landscape, this unanimity and the process that brought it about shouldn’t be forgotten.

There were of course those who questioned the significance of the decision. Human Rights Watch has argued that the resolution essentially maintains the status quo – a world where companies are encouraged, but not required, to respect human rights. But this view ignores the fact that the Guiding Principles establish norms based on international legal principles and social expectations, providing the foundation not only for future rule-making by states at national and global levels, but also an authoritative framework against which business behaviour will be judged from this point forward.

Guiding Principles are a game changer

Until now, business performance on human rights has been assessed against a wide range of standards, not necessarily universal, not always drawn from the law, and sometimes subjective. This diluted those instances where international law was affected and, in some instances, may have been violated. The Guiding Principles are therefore not the status quo, but a game changer.

In a nod to those who rightly pointed out that the proposed way forward wouldn’t solve all ongoing problems of business involvement in rights abuses around the world, paragraph 4 of the resolution was revised in the moments before the Council’s decision to signal that the Guiding Principles provide recommendations “on which further progress can be built.” Diplomatic speak to be sure, but an acknowledgement of a deliberate strategy of incremental progress based on evidence and the potential for future legal standards in the years ahead.

Cross-regional expert working group established

A second point to stress about the Council’s decision concerns its approach to next steps at the UN level on business and human rights. The resolution establishes a new 3-year mandate consisting of a cross-regional expert working group and an annual multi-stakeholder forum. The working group will be charged with leading efforts to disseminate and implement the Guiding Principles and to guide the work of the forum that is intended to build further international dialogue and cooperation.

Though not a mechanism designed to receive complaints about alleged rights abuses involving business, the working group is mandated to conduct country visits and to make recommendations on enhancing access to effective remedies for those whose human rights are affected by corporate activities, including in conflict areas. This opens a number of possibilities for the working group to pursue.

Indeed, the new mechanisms clearly won’t be successful if they only serve as talking shops. All stakeholders will have to pay great attention over the coming months to ensuring that the new expert working group and annual forum are set up in ways that can produce the greatest impact. That begins with the appointment of the working group members.

NGOs have already stressed that those involved will need to have strong expertise in human rights and a proven ability to engage with affected individuals and communities. That is critical, as is their ability to interact with business and government, which is why individuals with practical experience of integrating human rights principles into business operations at headquarters and throughout supply chains will also be critical to the group’s success.

UN Leadership just one part of the process

Continued UN leadership on business and human rights is obviously only one small part of the wider array of actions that must fall in place if private sector activities around the world are to be consistent with international human rights standards.

Applying existing domestic legislation, oversight, and enforcement of current laws are equally crucial steps.

Let’s hope the consensus that John Ruggie so skillfully shaped can be used in the time ahead to make further progress where it is needed most.

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