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NGOs dissatisfied? Fine with me…

New Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights are just out from the U.N.

Submitted by: Christine Bader

Posted: Jul 06, 2011 – 11:00 PM EST

Tags: human rights, john ruggie, united nations


Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles for business and human rights.  Despite overwhelming support of the principles from many previously-opposed camps — business lobbyists and socially responsible investors, trade unions and corporate law firms — a number of civil society groups expressed disappointment with the Council’s decision.

Human Rights Watch lamented the absence of “a mechanism to scrutinize how companies and governments apply these principles.”  The Child Rights Information Network believes that due attention hasn’t been paid to — you guessed it — children’s rights.

Having served as an advisor to the effort to develop the principles since 2006, part of me would prefer to see hugs and high-fives all around at the culmination of years of hard work.  But NGOs are right to keep pushing for more.

The Guiding Principles were developed through six years of intensive consultation and research led by John Ruggie, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for business and human rights.  Even before the Council’s final endorsement, a wide range of stakeholders had already begun applying Ruggie’s work in recent years:  NGOs in their advocacy reports, governments in policy reviews, investors in public statements, companies in sustainability reports and impact assessments.

This is largely due to the inclusive and pragmatic approach that Ruggie took throughout his mandate.  He held consultations all over the world, from meetings of hundreds of participants to small expert gatherings to an online forum that attracted thousands of visitors.  Many of the participants in those fora saw their input reflected as Ruggie’s work evolved, and therefore felt ownership over what he produced.  In addition, pilot projects road-tested principles while they were in development, ensuring their utility.

But there are still people being hurt every day by corporate activity that urgently need greater protection.  The Guiding Principles don’t suddenly solve all of the world’s problems; rather, they’re meant to serve as a common foundation for all that is needed next, including sector-specific guidance, capacity building, and ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogue.

Most NGOs will never claim victory and put their feet up.  The New York Times recently wrote about a few exceptions to the rule, nonprofits that are close to achieving their goals and plan to shut their doors.

But groups that aim to protect the world’s most vulnerable people will never be able to call it a day.  The human rights campaigners that are turning their attention to companies (as opposed to their traditional target of governments) will be in business for as long as, well, business is in business.  There are a number of companies proactively exploring how to embed human rights in their operations, but they are very much in the minority.

Even if a milestone like endorsement of the Guiding Principles is considered a victory, it’s within the context of a much longer journey.  Occasional acknowledgment of how far we’ve come would seem appropriate, but in any case the role of human rights NGOs is to continually move the goalposts, to keep all of us working towards a better world.

Expecting NGOs to be satisfied would be akin to believing The Onion article, “Corporation Reaches Goal, Shuts Down”, which began:  “After 18 years of striving, Dell Computer finally reached its long-stated goal to be the worldwide leader in computing systems Monday and promptly ceased operations.”

There’s always more to do.  Our work is just beginning.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers’ community and expresses this author’s views alone.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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