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Selecting a Special Representative on Business and Human Rights

Letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan

I am writing in regard to the decision taken at the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights to create a mandate for a special representative to the secretary-general on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. Human Rights Watch warmly welcomes this development.

Human Rights Watch warmly welcomes this development. We believe the work carried out under this initial two-year mandate can usefully contribute to strengthening corporate accountability standards and their implementation. This process should build on other U.N. efforts, including the U.N. Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (the Norms) and the report on business and human rights issued in February by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As you consider whom to appoint as your special representative on business and human rights, we would like to offer our views on the key qualifications you should seek in potential candidates for this post.

Candidates for the position of special representative must have a strong human rights background. Under the resolution, the special representative is mandated to identify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability with regard to human rights, to study and clarify concepts such as “complicity” and “spheres of influence” as they relate to the human rights responsibilities of businesses, and to develop methodologies for assessing the human rights impact of business activities, among other tasks. The ability and credibility of the special representative to adequately fulfill the mandate thus depends in large part upon her or his expertise on the human rights issues arising in the context of business activities. We also recognize that, to be effective, the special representative should be sensitive to the perspectives of business on these matters.

A commitment to standard-setting on business and human rights is equally essential for prospective candidates. States retain the primary responsibility for human rights, but businesses also have human rights responsibilities. The high commissioner for human rights noted in a recent report that “there remains a gap in understanding the nature and scope of responsibilities of business with regard to human rights” and that the proliferation of voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives providing different standards “could lead to inconsistent practices between companies and across nations.” These and other shortcomings mean that it can be very difficult for corporations to develop adequate human rights policies and procedures. They also complicate efforts to hold accountable those businesses that do not live up to their responsibilities. Therefore, there is a clear need to develop strong standards on business and human rights as well as measures for their implementation. This approach would be consistent with the commission’s intention to “identify options for strengthening standards…and possible means of implementation,” expressed in 2004, when it initiated its present work on business and human rights.

In that context, we note that the special representative should draw upon existing initiatives and standards, as specified in the decision taken at the recently-concluded 61st session of the commission. The U.N. Norms stand as the most significant such initiative. Together with their accompanying commentary, the norms are currently the most authoritative and comprehensive elaboration of the responsibilities of business with regard to human rights. We believe the special representative should use the norms as a benchmark for identifying standards on corporate responsibility and accountability.

Finally, we note that the special representative should reach out to and thoroughly engage with all stakeholders. These include representatives from business, governments, and civil society, including nongovernmental organizations and communities affected by business operations.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to taking part in a constructive dialogue on business and human rights issues with the special representative and to continuing our engagement with your office on these and other issues.

Sincerely,

/s/

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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