John Ruggie’s Just Business: Multinationals and Human Rights

Harvard University Professor John Ruggie has a new book out.

It’s called Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (Norton, March 2013).

The book is a history of Ruggie’s work with the United Nations to come up with a road map for “responsible corporate practices that take a pragmatic yet rights-based approach” to controlling multinational corporate crime, violence and misbehavior.

Ruggie developed what he calls a “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework and “Guiding Principles” to implement it.

(Governments protect, corporations respect, and courts remedy.)

The United Nations bought into Ruggie’s principles, but few independent observers have done so.

The book is a welcomed and detailed history of Ruggie’s efforts to put in place his guiding principles.

But Ruggie’s book will not convince major human rights groups and anti-sweatshop activists, who see Ruggie as carrying water for the multinationals.

In 2011, the two largest human rights groups — Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — attacked the United Nations Human Rights Council when it endorsed Ruggie’s framework.

Human Rights Watch said that the UN Human Rights Council “squandered an opportunity to take meaningful action to curtail business-related human rights abuses.”

“In effect, the council endorsed the status quo — a world where companies are encouraged, but not obliged, to respect human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Guidance isn’t enough – we need a mechanism to scrutinize how companies and governments apply these principles.”

Ganesan said that the council also decided it would create a new Forum on Business and Human Rights for governments, business, and others to meet annually to take a broad look at how the guiding principles were being carried out.

This was in line with the view of business organizations, who opposed more scrutiny and strongly argued for a tepid forum. It is unclear how this forum differs from the UN Global Compact, a modest effort to address corporate responsibility that began in 1999, Ganesan said.

“People suffering from abusive business practices need more than another talk shop about what companies should be doing,” Ganesan said. “If the commitment to these principles is real, why should companies and governments be afraid to review their implementation in a meaningful way?”

Anti-sweatshop activist Jeffrey Ballinger says that Ruggie’s framework won’t work.

“The problem is that it doesn’t work,” Ballinger told Corporate Crime Reporter. “We’ve seen corporations join the UN model and go on operating the same way through contractors they cannot and will not control. It’s a public relations exercise. And Ruggie is a big part of the team that has put this together.”

Others, like corporate criminologist John Braithwaite of the Australian National University, are willing to give Ruggie’s principles a chance.

When we asked Braithwaite about Ruggie’s work, he told us a Nixon going to China story.

“On Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, Henry Kissinger sought to break the ice with Premier Chou En-Lai by asking him what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution on western civilization. He replied to Nixon: ‘The impact of the French Revolution on western civilization — too early to tell.’”

“I’m a strong supporter of progressive UN framework agreements that seem pretty wishy-washy at first,” Braithwaite told Corporate Crime Reporter. “As we have seen with steps like the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, in the long run they can make a huge contribution from limited beginnings. It is too early to tell whether the Global Compact has had an impact on business civilization. It all depends on whether more specificity, teeth, commitment and tough auditing gets injected into the agreement over the long run. Or whether the Global Compact goes the way of ritualism and greenwash. This means Global Compact audits could go the same way as financial audits on Wall Street – becoming rituals of comfort that tell us little about underlying corporate substance.”

Ballinger, on the other hand, distrusts the international regulatory framework.

If not that, what?

“Consumers,” Ballinger said. “Ralph Nader proved fifty years ago that this is the movement that can get national laws changed or enforced.”

“Our trade laws — the General Systems of Preferences. We can threaten other countries, that unless they treat their workers well, we will impose sanctions. We threatened Indonesia. It’s a stick that unions and others can use.”

“We can say to Indonesia and other countries — we don’t like the way you treat trade unions in your country. You can start losing some trade benefits to this huge market unless you change your policies.”

“Use the trade laws as a tool for consumers and workers — not just for multinationals.”

“Even that kind of threat pales in comparison to what ordinary consumers can do in any industry.”

[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Jeffrey Ballinger, see 27 Corporate Crime Reporter 8(12), February 25, 2013, print edition only.]

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