A Human-Rights Duty to Regulate Corporations?
I’ve spent the last couple of days in an expert meeting on “the role of states in regulating and adjudicating the activities of corporations with respect to human rights,” hosted by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Danish section of the International Commission of Jurists. The meeting was designed to help inform John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights and Transnational Enterprises and Other Business Enterprises, or the SRSG, as he’s called (because saying the whole title slows down the conversation quite a bit), as he carries out his mandate to report and give recommendations to the Human Rights Council on the topic. His final recommendations are due next summer.
The consultation wasn’t public, so I guess I won’t say what was said or who said it, but here’s a general description. Despite the fact that it included a very wide range of folks, from governments, businesses, human rights NGOs, and academia, the discussion of the relationship between corporate activities and human rights was constructive and pragmatic, not ideological. This is due in large part to Ruggie’s own efforts. His mandate succeeded the failed effort by some human rights groups and academics to convince the Human Rights Commission to adopt the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights (known just as the Norms, for the same reasons given supra), which was drafted by a group of Sub-Commission members led by David Weissbrodt. Ruggie made clear early in his mandate that he wasn’t going to pursue that quest, which led to criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty and HRW. But he’s been successful, I think, in moving the debate beyond the Norms and convincing a wide array of stakeholders that he’s open to hearing what they have to say.
The focus of this meeting was firmly on the responsibility of states under existing human rights law to protect those within their jurisdiction from harm to their human rights, including in particular harm caused by corporations. It thus avoided the conceptual problems arising from the Norms’ effort to hold corporations directly liable for violations of human rights law. It was designed not to come to any conclusions, but merely to raise and explore issues that people thought Ruggie should take into account as he prepares his final report to the UN. (I was on a panel on trade and human rights, which put me in the somewhat awkward position of trying to tell the person who coined the term “embedded liberalism” something he doesn’t already know.)
Ruggie’s mandate expires this summer. An interesting question will be whether the HR Council extends the mandate and, if so, whether and how it will be reconfigured. It will also be interesting to see whether the Council asks the SG to reappoint Ruggie. He’s done a huge amount of work on this to date, raising money to support a full-time team of people, compiling over one thousand pages of reports, convening a series of meetings with people from virtually every sector imaginable . . . . It would certainly be logical to ask him to continue to work on it. I don’t think the UN has all that many special representatives who find money themselves for the work they’re asked to do.
On a completely different note, I always try to do some cross-border cultural research on trips abroad, mainly by watching TV in the hotel room. This trip, I concentrated on sports programming, and therefore I’m able to report, after careful investigation, that the following sports were being televised in Copenhagen Thursday night: soccer, soccer, team handball, soccer, doubles badminton, soccer, and dodgeball. Oh, and soccer. The truly odd thing was that in every game, the New England Patriots were winning.