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Shared Responsibility for Implementing the UN Guiding Principles

Published: Friday, June 24, 2011

There’s nothing quite like a provocative post!  Grab your attention.  Steady.  Keep it there.

Following the recent adoption of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council there has been a flurry of blog-writing activity.  This has been swell!

But I’m a bit worried by the tone of a few entries I read which went on to describe the UN’s enforcement role.  Not.  It won’t happen.

The Sum of its Parts

The UN is a standard-setting body.  Setting standards is where the UN gets its street-creds.  Standard-setting. Yes.  And always by consensus.  Consensus takes time to build.  So, any of the adjectives synonymous with speed are quite out of place at the UN.  It’s the antithesis of speed which has attracted some of the UN’s toughest critics.  Others seem less satisfied with the principle of one party one vote.  At the UN, a vote by the government of Swaziland is treated the same as a vote by the government of the US.  The UN IS the sum of its parts and is not independent of its member states. 

Out of Consultations Principles are Made

Typically, the UN will rely on member states to react to issues of global concern and to support the development of key standard-setting instruments to influence policy frameworks on issues where there aren’t any.  In developing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN tossed down the gauntlet, designated Harvard Professor John Ruggie as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative and issued him a mandate to consult and deliver.  Professor Ruggie consulted with member states and other key stakeholders including corporations, civil society organizations and associations.  It was through robust consultations that the Guiding Principles emerged. 

International UN Conventions have come into effect in precisely this way.  Work on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, officially began in 1979 during International Year of the Child, although efforts to create a special treaty focussing on the child had been underway for decades prior.  During the intervening 10 years before its adoption by the UN in 1989, a similar level of consultation occurred within and among member states involving a wide range of stakeholders.  The UN CRC was signed and then ratified by 191 countries. 

Ratification? Ratification by member states indicates their intent to meet the standards set by the Convention through the introduction of policies, laws and the allocation of sufficient resources to meet their obligations and expectations set by the Convention.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that  not all governments have kept their word – rich and poor alike – for various reasons, for no good reason, by the way.  But, by putting the Convention in the public domain, civil society is able to hold ratifying governments to account and to influence change.  Civil society does so regularly through different advocacy efforts.   

The Bar's Been Set!

It is true that the Guiding Principles do not carry the same weight as a Treaty or a Convention, which are legally binding instruments.  But we do know that at a minimum, the bar has been set.  Ambiguity has been erased and with the GPs in place, states can be pursued to ensure laws and protective measures to respect human rights are in place (or chased for falling short on their obligations).  Shareholders, Board Directors and company employees will be expected to know what it means to respect human rights and to become rights-informed.  Civil society will know that standards have been set and what to expect of companies large and small, wherever they may be. And whenever human rights are violated, they can be held accountable to remedy their wrongs.  Power is in the knowing!  Let everyone be informed.  The UN will not be “fixing” anything!

Hallelujah! The conversation has been framed, giving everyone the opportunity to nudge along best practices and to ensure compliance.  That’s what I like best about the UN: the unprecedented ability to create space for everyone to be engaged, to feel responsible and to be accountable for helping to get it right.  Hmmm…. dare we call it “shared responsibility”?


photo credit: Thaths September 2007 via flickr

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