John Ruggie Gives Opening Address at U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights

On December 4 and 5, more than 1,000 participants from 85 countries gathered for the first U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The Forum focused on “trends and challenges” in the implementation of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the “Guiding Principles”), which were formally endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2011. The Forum includes discussions of a broad set of key issues in the business and human rights space, ranging from access to remedies to indigenous peoples’ rights.

John Ruggie, the former U.N. Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, and now a Senior Advisor to Foley Hoag’s CSR practice, was the primary author of the Guiding Principles. Professor Ruggie gave the opening address to Forum attendees on December 4. In his remarks, he observed that

[h]uman rights traditionally have been conceived as a set of norms and practices to protect individuals from threats by the state, and attributing to the state the obligation to secure the conditions necessary for people to live a life of dignity. The idea that business enterprises might have human rights responsibilities independent of legal requirements in their countries of operation is relatively new, in large part a byproduct of the most recent wave of globalization.

Professor Ruggie observed that, for companies, the Guiding Principles focus on “the need to manage the risk of involvement in human rights abuses, which requires acting with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and to address harm where it does occur.”

In noting the impact of the Guiding Principles, Professor Ruggie noted that “the number of companies developing human rights policies, due diligence procedures and grievance mechanisms is rising significantly.” He also observed that the core expectations of the U.N. Guiding Principles have been incorporated into the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; the OECD Common Approaches for Export Credit Agencies; the IFC Performance Standards; ISO 26000; and, in the United States, Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act (the “conflict minerals” provision) and the Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment in Burma.

Amy Lehr, an associate in Foley Hoag’s CSR practice, also attended the Forum and presented at a separate event on human rights due diligence in Burma hosted by the Institute on Human Rights and Business.

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