Social Norms, Soft Law, Hard Law: The Evolution of Business and Human Rights

The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash Business School and Global Compact Network Australia  present:

John Ruggie, Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Date: 30 April 2019
6.15pm to 6.50pm (Registration, drinks & canapes provided); 7.00pm to 8.15pm (Lecture)
Venue: The Arena, NAB Docklands, 700 Bourke Street, Docklands 
RSVP: Register here

Public lecture - All welcome

Professor Ruggie will discuss the evolution of business and human rights, from why the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were necessary and how they have been implemented by all stakeholder groups to emerging trends today, including the intersection of the SDGs and the UNGPs and calls for an international treaty on business and human rights. He will talk about the role of all actors in working to prevent and address business-related human rights harm, including the need for a “smart mix” of both soft and hard measures to support and encourage companies to respect human rights at home and abroad as well as to hold them to account when things go wrong. This is a unique opportunity to hear from and engage with a true bastion of the global governance and corporate sustainability world.

John G. Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He served as the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights from 2005-2011. His mandate was to propose measures to strengthen the human rights performance of the business sector around the world. The end result was the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights drafted by Professor Ruggie and unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, 2011. John is also a Non-Executive Director of Arabesque Asset Management and Chair of Shift.

Event Summary

Presenting to a full house of human rights professionals, students and advocates, Professor Ruggie’s talk on the evolution of business and human rights was a great success.

Professor Ruggie began by discussing how the domain of business and human rights has progressed from social norms, often subject to contestation and dispute, to soft law,  to elements of hard law at a national level.

He discussed how the intersection of human rights and business came particularly into the fore as companies went ‘global’, but politics remained local, creating a wide regulation gap from which many contemporary human rights challenges emerged. In the past, Professor Ruggie explained, the idea that global problems should be solved through global treaties was pervasive. That approach, he argued, was not however always appropriate, particularly where issues were highly complex and widely contested. Instead, Professor Ruggie and his team sought to adopt a new approach, one that took into account the specific context within which these human rights issues arose. It was through this approach that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were developed.

He shared his experience and reflections as a key developer of the UNGPs. The principles, he explained were not designed to be regulatory, but instead build a social infrastructure to promote human rights goals. He discussed how engaging with key stakeholders in the public, private and civil governance spheres was central to the pursuit of consensus on the goals. Governments, he stressed, have international legal obligations to protect human rights. Businesses can cause, contribute and be directly linked to negative human rights impacts, and face risks when they violate human rights expectations. Finally, communities and civil society require remedies where these breaches of human rights occur.  Ultimately the Guiding Principles received unanimous approval from the UN Human Rights Council.

Importantly, Professor Ruggie emphasised, many elements of the goals have gone a step further to be reinforced in domestic hard law. It is precisely through precision measures such as these, at regional and national levels, that human rights issues in business will be best tackled in future. Another international treaty, he fears, will be overly politicised, and unlikely to succeed.

The evening concluded with an engaging and informative Q&A session chaired by Vanessa Zimmerman.

Want to hear more? You can watch the full video of the event on the Castan Centre’s YouTube Channel.