Protect, Respect and Remedy: Businesses’ role in upholding Human Rights?

A recent post from my colleague Jonathan Banco regarding UNCTAD‘s (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) push to standardize CSR metrics reminded me of another United Nation’s initiative that sought to establish a framework to reduce governance gaps and subsequently reduce adverse human rights consequences of transnational corporations.  What has happened to the “Protect, Respect & Remedy” framework outlined by John Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative for Business and Human Rights?

In July 2005, Kofi Annan appointed Professor John G. Ruggie to be Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on business & human rights.  After three years of extensive research and consultations with governments, business and civil society on five continents, Ruggie outlined a policy framework for better managing business and human rights challenges.  The framework rests on three pillars:

(1)  the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication.

(2) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others.

(3)  greater access by victims to effective remedy.

In a June 2010 address at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, John Ruggie clarified that he used the term “responsibility” to respect rather than “duty” to indicate that respecting rights is not an obligation current international human rights law generally imposes directly on companies (although elements may be reflected in domestic laws, including labor law).  He added that at the international level it is a standard of expected conduct acknowledged in virtually every voluntary and soft-law instrument related to corporate responsibility.

Unfortunately “expected conduct” does not always translate into actual conduct and the voluntary nature of corporate responsibility leaves much to be desired in the realm of businesses’ role in upholding human rights.  A recent report by Human Rights Watch regarding European companies violating International Labor Standards in America highlights this shortcoming.  The 128-page report, “A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations,” details ways in which some European multinational firms have carried out aggressive campaigns to keep workers in the United States from organizing and bargaining, violating international standards and, often, US labor laws.

According to the news release, “The behavior of these companies casts serious doubt on the value of voluntary commitments to human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Companies need to be held accountable, to their own stated commitments and to strong legal standards.”

Hopefully the final Ruggie report due in 2011 will provide a set of guiding principles that will address gaps that allow even the most “developed” of nations to violate standard international labor laws.

For more information on John Ruggie, the Framework and business & human rights visit The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Image Credit:  United Nations Information Service – Geneva via Flickr under CC license.