Mobilising global leaders

Lecture by Professor John Ruggie

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (known as the “Ruggie Principles”) require that states and companies take new measures to avoid direct or indirect human rights abuses in their cross-border activities.

In 2015, Fondation Guilé invited Professor John Ruggie to give a conference in Geneva for some 500 attendees. His talk focused on the theme “The UN’s ‘Project, Respect and Remedy’ framework for corporate human rights responsibilities: A leadership opportunity for Swiss Companies”. One of the issues addressed by Professor Ruggie during his lecture was the difficulty of balancing the usual self-regulation perspective with a more coercive approach.

The United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) have been widely accepted in business and politics, largely thanks to Professor Ruggie’s ability to develop a pragmatic Human Rights language to describe the legal and reputational risks incurred by companies in breach of human rights, whether by accident or design.

One of the biggest challenges identified to date is how to build internal leverage within organisations, with a focus on ensuring respect for human rights. There is an old adage that says “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”, and to this end, companies like Unilever have developed highly in-depth systems to track their performance in this area. Taking care of the small things can ensure that situations do not escalate into violent confrontation, as in the case of Shell in Nigeria, where according to Professor Ruggie, a senior executive from Shell said “having these (Guiding Principles) 20 years ago would have saved lives and saved us a lot of trouble.”