Reflections on the Evolving Business and Human Rights Agenda

As mentioned in last week’s post, participants in the Voluntary Principles Initiative recently held their Annual Plenary Meeting. The discussions began with opening addresses from Professor John Ruggie, the former U.N. Special Representative on Business and Human Rights and author of the U.N. Guiding Principles, and Dr. Margaret Jungk, from the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

In their remarks, both Professor Ruggie and Dr. Jungk noted the tremendous evolution that has taken place in the business and human rights agenda since the Voluntary Principles Initiative was originally launched in 2000. Professor Ruggie, now a Senior Advisor to Foley Hoag’s Corporate Social Responsibility practice, observed that

the international community has achieved considerable convergence around common normative principles and policy guidance for their enactment. This provides greater clarity and predictability all around, as well as authoritative benchmarks for assessing how effectively governments and companies are putting those principles into practice.

In talking about recent changes in the business and human fights field, noting especially the U.N. Guiding Principles, Dr. Jungk noted that “the VPs [Voluntary Principles] were ahead of their time. In 2000 the VPs were already using the clear, concrete language of human rights.” Looking ahead ten years, Dr. Jungk suggested that

By 2023, the vast majority of multinational companies will be conversant with human rights. They will understand the responsibility to respect, and will acknowledge that this responsibility is core to their business. Like the communities impacted by their operations, companies will use the language of human rights and the approach of stakeholder engagement and concrete performance indicators. This change will be driven from within companies by individuals who understand that community engagement and human rights due diligence are not a cost, but an investment.

The speeches given by Professor Ruggie and Dr. Jungk highlight both the achievements of the last thirteen years and the tremendous work that remains to be done.  In the early part of the last decade, it was remarkable for a group of companies to come together and make explicit human right commitments. Today, such commitments are not that unusual, but the work of actually integrating those commitments into the day-to-day management of business operations remains a great challenge. Even more challenging is translating those commitments into a platform for true dialogue with rights-holders, namely the communities impacted by corporate operations.