Business & Human Rights in Vancouver: Amnesty criticizes UN Framework on CSR

I’ve been following the debate between John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, and Amnesty International regarding the proposed principles for a UN framework on corporate social responsibility. Below is a letter Ruggie submitted to the Financial Times, followed by a response from Amnesty.

Sir, Hugh Williamson reports that Amnesty International and some other pressure groups fear that adoption of a proposed set of guiding principles for implementing the United Nations “protect, respect and remedy” framework in the area of business and human rights “risks undermining efforts to strengthen corporate responsibility”, and that “the current draft should not be adopted by the Human Rights Council” (“Amnesty criticises UN framework for multinationals”, January 17). This is bizarre on several counts.

First, these same organisations keep telling the world that there are currently no global standards in the area of business and human rights, causing both governments and business enterprises to fall far short of desired practices. In contrast, the UN framework and guiding principles elevate standards of conduct significantly.

Second, these same organisations use the UN framework constantly as a basis for criticising the performance of companies, governments and international agencies – so how inadequate and unacceptable could its implementation possibly be?

Third, Amnesty and the others would have a lot to answer for if they actually were to oppose Human Rights Council endorsement of this hard-won initiative. In 2004, they heavily promoted a scheme for regulating companies that had no champions among governments and triggered the vehement and unified opposition of the business community. What was the result?

Victims of corporate-related human rights harm, for whom these organisations claim to speak, got nothing. Now, seven years later, we have a proposal on the table that enjoys broad support from governments, business associations, individual companies, as well as a wide array of civil society and workers’ organisations.

Do Amnesty and the others really urge its defeat – delivering “nothing” to victims yet again? How much longer will they ask victims to wait in the name of some abstract and elusive global regulatory regime when practical results are achievable now?

John Ruggie,

UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights,

Cambridge, MA, US

Here’s the response from Amnesty:

Sir, John Ruggie’s letter (January 19) in response to Hugh Williamson’s article “Amnesty criticises UN framework for multinationals” (January 17) is surprising on several counts.

At Amnesty International our researchers regularly investigate human rights abuses committed by corporations. We work with victims – from the Niger Delta to India, Netherlands to Papua New Guinea. We campaign for their rights and work with them to seek reparations. We do not believe the draft guiding principles effectively protect victims’ rights or ensure their access to reparations.

Let’s be frank – the real opposition to effective guiding principles does not come from Amnesty International but from business interests. The draft guiding principles enjoy broad support from business, precisely because they require little meaningful action by business.

Prof Ruggie has acknowledged that governments often fail to regulate companies effectively, and that companies working in many countries evade accountability and proper sanctions when they commit human rights abuses. The fundamental challenge was how to address these problems. His draft guiding principles fail to meet this challenge. Amnesty International believes they must be strengthened.

We have offered constructive advice, based on years of investigative experience, to help the process. We will continue to do so.

Widney Brown,

Senior Director for International Law and Policy,

Amnesty International

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