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Observations on the Final Report of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie*


Alejandro Teitelbaum

Alejandro Teitelbaum has devoted many years to work on the issue of human rights in the realm of global corporations and other business enterprises. As the former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva, for the American Association of Jurists –based in Buenos Aires, he spent time toiling with the bureaucracies of the UN and member States, in his pursuit of an international legal framework that would harness business activity so that it would stop violating a wide array of human rights in its sphere of influence, as is customarily the case today. As such, he witnessed how, time and time again, the bureaucracies succumbed to the will of the leading economic powers, who were adamant at maintaining the preeminence of corporate interest over their responsibility for their infringement on human rights.

In recent years, Teitelbaum has assessed the extremely pro-business slanted work of John Ruggie, appointed, arguably, to design a framework that would “increase the stakes” for corporations when infringing upon human rights in their daily operations. Teitelbaum has consistently criticised Ruggie’s clear inclination for neoliberal ideology at the service of transnational economic power, which clearly opposes any kind of instrument that would govern, in a binding manner, business practices concerning human rights.

In this brief, Teitelbaum provides his final observations on the perspective that Ruggie attempts to advance in his Final Report. The author incorporates into his assessment the consistent laissez faire course followed by Ruggie since the time when he was the UN Secretary General’s principal advisor for the Global Compact; a public relations instrument –now even derided inside the UN– to allow companies to look good without really doing the public good. In his previous assessment,** Teitelbaum succinctly concludes that Ruggie puts up an act to change so that, at the end, everything remains the same. That is, he advances no binding rules to ensure that business activity does not infringe on human rights, but only an encouragement to voluntarily incorporate into business culture a consideration for respecting human rights. Thus, the author’s recommendation to really address the issue was that “the UN Human Rights Council should make an about turn of 180 degrees on this issue to be in sync with the gravity of the social and economic situation in which the world is living”.

Yet, as could be expected, Ruggie’s Final Report remains consistently on the same course and constitutes merely a meek orientation, wrapped as “Guiding Principles,” that lacks a binding nature for both States and corporations. It is on this respect that the author makes his main observation, conspicuously pointing at the central fault of Ruggie’s laissez faire non-binding premise. His argument is that Ruggie takes advantage of a past mistake made in the Norms Draft for Business and Human Rights “to create the confusion between the inherent obligation of the State to promote, guarantee and ensure respect for human rights and the obligation –and the corresponding direct responsibility in case of violation– of corporations (as of all moral and physical private persons) of respecting the human rights upheld in international norms.” For Ruggie, the author argues, “human rights would constitute a special category of rights that can only be violated by States and their civil servants and not by private persons, except in certain war crimes and crimes against humanity”. However, the author asserts, “there is no doubt that transnational corporations, as all private persons, have the obligation to respect the law, and if they do not do it they must suffer the civil and penal sanctions at an international level as well, which clearly emerges of a relatively attentive examination of the current international instruments”.

In this way, Teitelbaum’s conclusion is that if transnational corporations benefited when the Norms Draft was buried, Ruggie’s Final Report sinks again any attempt to create an instrument of binding nature to enforce respect for human rights in the realm of business activity. Consequently, and as could be foreseen, Ruggie’s work is once again a ploy so that everything remains the same.

* (A/HRC/17/31, 21 March 2011)
** A Dialogue with Ruggie?

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