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The panel on corporate responsibility and human rights was focused on the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights issued by the United Nations, with the strong encouragement and commitment by John Ruggie, the noted academic. The principles are very hortatory, with breadth, little depth, and not much detail. The question underlying the discussion was how, if at all, the principles are affecting the conduct of states and businesses.
One might have doubts about whether a positive answer could be ventured to this question. The Principles are an achievement and an agenda setter, but the text – that “states must protect against human rights abuse within their territory and/or jurisdiction by third parties, including business enterprises,” and that “business enterprises should respect human rights” – is hardly specific. And indeed, if a theme was running through the views of the panelists, it was that the guiding principles achieved progress as part of a palette of incentives. These could induce businesses to think about, say, resettlement practices where large public works and mineral extraction projects were being pursued, worker and other protections could be built into supply contracts to ensure that the groups most affected by large investments should be able to profit from those investments.
The other reasons that could induce states to protect and businesses to respect human rights, included, as the panelists discussed, other treaty obligations that might be informed by the guidance, investment arbitrations, corporate adoption of indicators to ensure consistency with the guidance, and pure self-interest and public relations. Companies often have the leverage to encourage their host countries to take human rights seriously, after all, and corporations might quell some local resistance by observing certain human rights that the resisters would deem particularly important.
The panelists agreed, some with regret, that the prospect of a human rights treaty with more specific commitments was unlikely. Businesses are opposed – a representative from Chevron was skeptical that a treaty would do much good. Nonetheless, it means that the responsibility for firms is soft, unless hardened by domestic implementation by regulators – and experience suggests that such implementation will not be easy.
David Zaring is a Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.