(Geneva) - The UN Human Rights Council squandered an opportunity to take meaningful action to curtail business-related human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.
The council, on June 16, 2011, endorsed a set of "Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights" and announced the formation of a working group and an annual meeting of business, government, and civil society representatives focused on disseminating and discussing those principles. The principles are the final outcome of the tenure of John Ruggie, a Harvard professor who has been the UN's special representative on business and human rights since 2005.
The council failed to put in place a mechanism to ensure that the basic steps to protect human rights set forth in the Guiding Principles are put into practice, Human Rights Watch said. The Guiding Principles do not set a "global standard," as some have suggested.
"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."
Human Rights Watch has documented a wide variety of business-related abuses around the world. Examples from recent reports include gang rapes by mine security workers in Papua New Guinea, retaliation against workers seeking to unionize in the United States, lead poisoning of children from factories in China, and hazardous child labor on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan. While such practices would run afoul of the new Guiding Principles, the council's resolution fails to put in place a process to prevent or respond to such abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The council disregarded recommendations by dozens of civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch, that called for a strong follow-up to Ruggie's work, with a mechanism to assess whether companies and governments had put the principles into operation. Instead, the council decided to create a five-member working group, to be appointed in September 2011, to promote and disseminate the Guiding Principles. It invited the group to consider options and make recommendations aimed at improving victims' access to remedies.
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.
"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?"
The Human Rights Council's minimalist approach contrasts starkly with the action the same day by the International Labor Organization to create a landmark new treaty protecting the rights of domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.
The new ILO treaty contains detailed provisions requiring governments to regulate private employment agencies and investigate complaints.
"The overwhelming majority of ILO members stood up for human rights despite the opposition of some businesses and governments," Ganesan said. "But council members unfortunately so far have failed to show real leadership to raise standards of corporate accountability."
The Guiding Principles aim to provide "an authoritative global standard," and governments at the Human Rights Council described them as "comprehensive recommendations." However, Human Rights Watch believes that the Guiding Principles are only a partial answer and were never intended to stand on their own.
The principles were developed in response to a council request to Ruggie to "operationalize" - or translate into concrete terms - the UN "Respect, Protect and Remedy" framework that he elaborated in 2008 and that the council endorsed.
That framework articulates three core concepts rooted in longstanding human rights principles: governments have a duty to protect individuals and communities from human rights abuses, including in connection with business activity; businesses have a responsibility to respect all rights; and victims should have greater access to remedy for abuses. Human Rights Watch has described the 2008 UN Framework as providing a valuable point of reference.
The Guiding Principles outline partial steps to carry out the UN Framework, Human Rights Watch said. In January, 125 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, jointly expressed concern that a draft version of the Guiding Principles was weaker in several respects than prevailing human rights standards. Revisions to the text did not fully address the discrepancies. For example, the Guiding Principles touch on access to justice for victims of corporate abuses but do not refer to the well-established international human right to an effective remedy.
"After six years, the Human Rights Council fell far short of its potential on business and human rights," Ganesan said. "We hope that governments will now think about strong measures to ensure that all companies live up to human rights standards."