In the memory of John Ruggie, the founding father of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Dinner together in Brussels, December 2019. Jude Kirton-Darling, Helmut Scholz, Margaret Wachenfeld, Susanne Gasde, Pascal Durant, Heidi Hautala, John Ruggie, Rachel Davis, Johanna Sumuvuori, Alva Bruun, Stefanie Freyberg, Andy Hall.

I am deeply saddened to hear that Professor John G. Ruggie passed away on 16 September 2021.

His individual strength and vision was central in the birth of the global movement to make real the rights of the people who have paid the highest price for globalisation, the people held in slavery and forced to work in inhumane conditions, the indigenous peoples who lost their lands to agribusiness or mining corporations.  His efforts creating the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and later implementing them into practice will live long after him. I am relieved to know that John Ruggie experienced the enthusiasm around the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles this year, ready to go to the next decade,  with so many different allies and stakeholders networking closely with one another. And above all, he was there to see the beginning of the real implementation of the Guiding Principles, notably by the EU. He became a permanent companion and guide to the core group of MEPs committed to this work. 

Yet, our work to enshrine these principles into legally binding frameworks, in all four corners of the world, will sorely miss his voice and his leadership. Many will no doubt share my feelings today, that our work will be much, much harder without him. But I pledge, in honor of his memory, that together we will keep going until laws protect the rights of every single person from corporate misbehaviour in our global village.

Not more than five months ago I had the honour to discuss the EU’s due diligence efforts from a global perspective with professor Ruggie. The interview is part of an interview series I am conducting in my role as the European Parliament’s vice-president for the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). I believe that his insights in the discussion are highly relevant and inspirational even today.

EMAS talks interview with Professor John G. Ruggie 21st of April 2021

H. Hautala: I remember in 2011 I must have read in the newspapers that now for the first time ever the United Nations have decided that while states have the duty to protect human rights, corporations have the duty to respect them. What actually led you to this work and how did you become the UN special representative of business and human rights? That must have been quite a task to do and something that had not been done before.

Prof. Ruggie: “Thank you Heidi. I’ll be very brief about it. There was a sub-group in the then (UN) Commission of Human Rights that had drafted a treaty-like instrument for business and human rights, which would have imposed on companies essentially the same legal obligations that states have accepted for themselves under international human rights law. This was opposed by businesses, it was opposed by states, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it on their side.”

“Advocates were strongly in favour because it promised to be legally binding, but it collapsed. But a number of delegations especially from the EU and US felt that the issue was sufficiently important to be kept on the agenda. So the Human Rights Council passed a mandate for a more modest exploration of this issue and an invitation to come back with recommendations.”

“They asked the Secretary General to appoint a Special Representative to do this. Now, I had worked with Kofi Annan as his Assistant Secretary General for strategic planning during his first term. Then I went back to academics but not for long because he called and said “look, I can’t put an advocate in charge of this, I don’t want to put a lawyer in charge of it, I can’t put a business person in charge of it so John, it’s you. It won’t take long,  two years, mostly desktop and you can stay in Harvard”. Yea, right. It took six years, 15 international consultations in all parts of the world and then a last minute drive to make sure that this was going to be adopted and we wanted it to be adopted unanimously so that it would become an authoritative standard.”

H. Hautala: You must have had some opponents, and you must have had some allies? I suppose that the civil society globally had worked with these issues and was supporting you? And there must have been some progressive companies who already worked in the UN Global Compact, which was also an inspiration by Kofi Annan ten years earlier?

Prof. Ruggie: “Yes it was. The alliances were complex. We had strong support from a number of governments which was helpful. And we had support from leading businesses because for the first time they were being told not only what to do, but how  to do it. And they appreciated that, the distinction between states and businesses, that states have their own obligations as states but that corporations have responsibilities irrespective of what states do. They are independent responsibilities so this made sense for business.”

“And the mixed response to be honest, came from the advocacy community because they felt that the previous treaty-like effort is what they would have preferred.”

H. Hautala: Who were the early movers putting in place the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011? The implementation took some time.

Prof. Ruggie: “I’ll tell you Heidi, the early movers were not governments. The governments slept through the first five years, if I can be very frank. If anything was done it was sort of loose encouragement for the Guiding Principles to business but nothing stronger. Then some of the anti-slavery laws came along but none of them had any teeth. And then some non-financial reporting requirements came along but they didn’t have any teeth.  It was not until 2015 or 2016 that governments, frankly, led by the European governments, started to take their own responsibility seriously. We had the first movers in the world of business, long before we had first movers on the part of governments.”

H. Hautala: How do you explain that paradox?

Prof. Ruggie: “I have developed a general rule which is that if you have  governments of a certain orientation in place, and it’s typically sort of center right. The governments think that they are doing business a favour by not regulating even the most egregious behavior. And that somehow the market is going to take care of it or incentives will take care of it or voluntary initiatives will take care of it. It was only when this became patently obvious that it was not going to work out by itself that governments started to pay attention.”

H. Hautala: I believe that the cocoa producers were among the first companies that started to call for mandatory regulation, because they couldn’t face their customers, normal consumers, anymore. People started to ask for chocolate without child labour and deforestation. It was a big shock for me around 2018 when I realised that chocolate companies were pushing for mandatory human rights due diligence legislation! Then we started to discuss with them and saw that they could be a great ally in the implementation in the EU, a major chocolate importer. This has been quite a lesson for me, that  companies can be in the forefront.

Prof. Ruggie: “Yes, and of course they were. And they were typically consumer-facing companies or community-facing companies, for example the mining industry. There were some companies in the mining industry that immediately said that this is going to help us reduce trouble in the communities in which we operate, if we have adequate due diligence processes,  if we engage the community, if we have a grievance mechanism – that is going to help us solve a lot of community relations problems.”

H. Hautala: You mentioned the anti-slavery legislation, and that this legislation had no teeth – I guess your message would be that laws without enforcement and monitoring are really not worth anything?

Prof. Ruggie: “They have symbolic value. Some companies will look through them as a way to reduce risk, but those effects will be fairly limited. But that’s why the EU exists, right? You’re in the process of generating a revolution. A revolution against neoliberalism.

H. Hautala: That’s really music to my ears, that’s how I want to see the EU as well! Let’s enter a little bit deeper into the EU. It’s been a great delight for many of us that you took such an interest in what we are doing at the moment in the EU in implementing of the UN Guiding Principles. You have to explain why you took this interest!

Prof. Ruggie: “I have been interested in the EU for a long time, I’m an academic at heart and my speciality as an academic was to focus on governance innovations beyond the level of the state. And the EU in my view has always been one of the most significant governance innovations in the 20th century. It began very modestly with the merger of coal and steel and built up to what it is today. My last international flight before covid was to go to the Finnish presidency conference at the EU in which I said, look, in economic and social terms, the EU is a superpower, start behaving like one!”

H. Hautala: We remember your speech very well in Brussels on that grey December day in 2019. You mentioned the Finnish Council presidency and as said earlier the EU has been a sleeping beauty in this question. I would say that the Finnish presidency brought strongly business and human rights back to the political agenda. And maybe connected the dots that were here and there among the Member States and noticed that the European parliament repeatingly called for mandatory human rights and environment due diligence. So we have seen a leap ahead since 2019. But what should we do with this different national legislations that keeps popping up in the EU? 

Prof. Ruggie: “Well to the extent that they are on the same subject, I suspect that many of the European governments that I and my colleagues have been in touch with, will adopt or align with the EU wide regulations, it only makes sense. You don’t want 26 different regulations in the EU. I think the German government has said in public that it has its own draft law which is being discussed in the parliament,  I believe the government is on record saying that if the Commission comes forward with a good draft on Sustainable Corporate Governance – and mandatory human rights due diligence is part of it – that they would certainly align with the EU-wide standard.”

H. Hautala: SHIFT has been helping the EU Member States to implement UNGP. Where are we at the moment? Do we have a chance to achieve what some call a ”Brussels moment” where we would put in place something that would have a broader impact in the world?

Prof. Ruggie: “The Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation is in place and that is sending ripple effects throughout the American financial community, because obviously they operate in the European single market. The revised Non-Financial Reporting requirements similarly will be applicable to companies within the single market. And the law firms in the US are beginning now to discover that, hey, this sustainable corporate governance thing, this is really tough, because it is likely – at least from what we have heard from Commissioner Reynders –  it’s likely to contain requirements that companies have never before been required to comply with. Yes, I think there is a Brussels moment, and it’s already started!

H. Hautala: There have been some quite contradictory views on the UN “binding treaty”. Is it  worth joining? The EU has not been eager to do that until now…

Prof. Ruggie: “Well it’s not only the EU, all of the OECD countries have boycotted it. China has raised serious objections, Russia has said it does not want a treaty, Brazil has now said it doesn’t want a treaty, so my guess is that this treaty is not going to go very far and the negotiations may run out of steam even this year. So if it were adopted, it would be adopted by none of the countries that are host/home countries of major multinational companies. So it would be appearing as a victory.” 

Now the EU has started working on its own territory implementing business and human rights. Can you tell us about SHIFT?

Prof. Ruggie: “SHIFT is the world’s leading center of expertise on business and human rights and the UNGP. SHIFT was co founded by senior members of the team that I had put together to develop the UNGP so they were with me for the six years journey of developing the guiding principles and then two senior members of the team, Caroline Rees and Rachel Davis, decided that the world is going to need help in implementing these Principles and so they founded SHIFT and asked me to be chairman of the board. We are now a family of 24-26 members working with business, with governments, with labor unions and with NGOs on the implementation of the UNGP in different sectors, in different contexts and on contemporary focused issues. Like for example the companies that participated in SHIFT wanted right away to have guidance on how to respond to COVID, not only their direct employees but their supply chains and issues of that nature.”

H. Hautala: It would be interesting if you could mention an example of yourself and your colleagues to help companies to identify their human rights impact, their environmental footprint, to change their behavior, in case there are some breaches of human rights or environmental destruction in their value chains, and to remedy them for the victims. Do you have some examples that you could mention which have been successful?

Prof. Ruggie: “Well the genius of the model that Caroline Rees and Rachel Davis came up with is that the business learning programme, which is one component, that companies are not in this forever. They’re supposed to learn what needs to be done and then they graduate. And then new companies come in. 

I think it’s fair to say that companies that have come through that have gone further in internalizing even the nuanced implications of the UNGP particularly when it comes to due diligence provisions.

That was a hard part for companies. But I had singled individual companies out because in 20 minutes something bad might happen. There are lots of companies in Europe, in the UK, and some in America that have benefited enormously from going through the exercises and peer learning with SHIFT.”

H. Hautala:  I have one more question because we are in a public institution, in the European Parliament. We have just broadened our environmental procurement to social issues. So we are in a way trying to imitate the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights. Public procurement is a huge part of our economy so what would be your advice for such an organisation like ours – can we apply the principles even if we are not a corporation?

Prof. Ruggie: “The argument goes right back to the development of the Guiding Principles with governments, to the extent that the arguments were really about this question. Governments acting as economic actors ought to take their human rights obligations into account. We heard this argument a lot with export credit agencies, for example, and some of them would come back and say, oh no this doesn’t apply to us, we are not a government agency we are a commercial agency. Then I said, ok chapter one of the UN GP doesn’t apply to you but chapter two does. One or the other does, you can’t escape it. But I think what you are talking about falls entirely and easily within the obligations that governments have when they act as economic actors.”

H. Hautala: John, this is very encouraging, I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have this exchange with you. You continue to be a great inspiration to our work. And I’m sure that our audience has enjoyed this talk. Thank you so much!

Prof. Ruggie: Thank you so much. And thank you Heidi for your leadership on these issues in the European Parliament.