Business and Human Rights Revisited

By Peter M. Robinson

Peter M. Robinson
Peter M. Robinson

It’s no secret that many global companies must contend, often on a daily basis, with the challenges of doing business in countries and regions where respect for human rights may be severely lacking.

A year ago, we reported on a planned United Nations study examining the responsibilities of the business community in promoting and protecting human rights.  The UN recently released its second report on the issue, supporting many of USCIB’s positions in what has become a highly contentious debate.  In a nutshell: business can and should contribute to the protection of human rights, but companies cannot take the place of governments in providing essential legal protections.

The contents of the UN report – the focus of speculation among both companies and NGOs, many of whom hold that business must be held responsible for implementing and enforcing human rights laws – offered somewhat of a mixed assessment.  The answer, it seems, is a mixture of the business view and a third option, which the UN terms “shared responsibility.”

The report is the official submission of Harvard professor John Ruggie, the UN’s special representative to on business and human rights, to the new UN Council on Human Rights.  It presents his findings to date and was presented to the council on March 28in Geneva.

On the central question of the role of governments versus companies, the report states quite clearly that “the State duty to protect against non-State abuses is part of the very foundation of the international human rights regime.”  In other words, governments cannot simply shift their responsibilities to companies and must implement and enforce their human rights laws.

On the question of whether companies are liable under international human rights conventions, Professor Ruggie states: “It does not seem that the international human rights instruments discussed [in the report] currently impose direct legal responsibilities on corporations.”  This question has been hotly debated between the business community and many NGOs for the past few years, and while it is unlikely to resolve the issue completely, this conclusion does help to focus the debate on more constructive issues.

The report recognizes the value of partnerships and other voluntary initiatives in bringing a range of actors together – business, governments and NGOs – to address particular problems or concerns.  It is this results-oriented approach that presents the greatest potential for success in this area.

Importantly, Professor Ruggie has been open to dialogue with business and NGOs alike.   The three main pillars of USCIB’s global network – the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Organization of Employers, and the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD – collaborated on a joint submission to Professor Ruggie on the role of business in failed states.

For more information or to get involved, contact USCIB’s Adam Greene (212-703-5056,

Mr. Robinson’s bio and contact information

More on USCIB’s Corporate Responsibility Committee

UN website


New postings from Mr. Robinson appear quarterly.  Previous postings:

The Internet’s Continued Growth Requires Careful Choices (Autumn 2006)

Securing the Promise of Nanotechnology (Summer 2006)

Making Progress in the Fight Against Fakes (Spring 2006)



Staff Contact:   Peter Robinson

President and CEO
Tel: 212.703.5046

Peter Robinson is USCIB’s 15th president. USCIB, founded in 1945, is a policy advocacy and trade services organization dedicated to promoting open markets, competitiveness and innovation, sustainable development and corporate responsibility, supported by international engagement and regulatory coherence.
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