U.N. Special Rep: Time to ‘Know and Show’

The time has come for the private sector and its activist stakeholders to move from “name and shame” to “know and show,” says United Nations Special Representative on Business and Human Rights John Ruggie.

Ruggie is working to define roles and recommend operational parameters for his 3-pillar approach to business and human rights. The Harvard professor will present his final findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011. Many expect the council to formalize his recommendations and finally set an international standard for businesses in relations to human rights.

“It’s a game changer,” Ruggie told a gathering of corporate, NGO, government and socially responsible investor representatives in Atlanta last week.

Over the last quarter-century, environmental and human rights activist groups have increasingly targeted private sector businesses — particularly large multinational corporations — as the focus for their campaigns on the issues.

In most cases, this has reflected perceptions, sometimes supported by hard evidence, of either direct or indirect responsibility for rights abuses by a single corporation, multiple corporations, or a particular industry — with activist campaigns employing public “name, shame and blame” campaigns against the perceived wrongdoers.

In other cases, raising human rights or environmental rights abuses with corporations has been a pragmatic move by activists to avoid directly challenging the role of the governments involved. A corporation or industry can’t arrest group leaders or ban their operations. At the same time, corporations do have power and can exert influence on governments to improve rights conditions.

At the center of each campaign, whether explicitly stated or not, is the quest to define businesses’ responsibilities and duties related to their own operations, as well as in relation to the communities in which they work and the markets where they sell their products.

But there has never been an accepted international norm for the role of businesses in human rights concerns. All of the existing international standards, like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, address government responsibility.

Ruggie’s 3 pillars look at the state’s duty to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect, and stakeholders’ access to remedy. For corporations, the key operational element, according to Ruggie, is to conduct due diligence. This means making a policy-level commitment to human rights, periodic assessments on the actual and potential impact of business operations on human rights, and integrating the process into decision-making and the tracking of performance.

“If a company doesn’t know, then they can’t show. A claim to respect human rights is just that, a claim, not a fact,” Ruggie said. “Human rights is social sustainability, and companies have to demonstrate that.”

Even though an international standard won’t be “on the books” until at least next year at the earliest, forward-thinking corporations like Coca-Cola and Hewlett Packard have already taken up the 3-pillar approach, exploring ways to operationalize these concepts in their business practices and reaching out to other stakeholders to advance this process to the broader corporate community.