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Financial Times: Call for clearer human rights standards in business

By Alison Maitland in London
Published: March 1 2006 02:00 | Last updated: March 1 2006 02:00
The furore over US internet companies' compliance with censorship laws in China is a good example of why the corporate world must have clearer human rights standards, says John Ruggie, the UN secretary-general's special representative on human rights and business.
In an interview to coincide with this week's publication of his interim report on corporate human rights responsibilities, Professor Ruggie said Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco had been “caught flat-footed” over censorship because they had not thought about the standards that should govern their operations in China.
“It's going to be difficult, but we do need clearer standards and better tools,” said Prof Ruggie of Harvard University, whose final report will be submitted to the United Nations next year.
In his interim report, Prof Ruggie says existing voluntary initiatives contain weaknesses because they tend not to cover determined laggards – the companies that cause the biggest problems – and leave many areas of human rights poorly protected or uncovered.
However, he also risks angering human rights activists by denouncing the “exaggerated legal claims and conceptual ambiguities” of what are called the UN norms on human rights and business. The draft rules, put forward by a UN sub-commission in 2003, led to bitter wrangling between business groups that opposed them and activists who supported them.
“What the norms have done is to take existing state-based human rights instruments and simply assert that many of their provisions now are binding on corporations as well,” he writes. “But that assertion itself has little authoritative basis in international law.”
Prof Ruggie, appointed by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan last year to end the stalemate over the norms, said the question of whether rules should be voluntary or obligatory could be answered only when appropriate standards had been agreed.
While there could be common standards for procedures such as corporate disclosure of human rights policies and practices, he suggested “substantive standards” would vary between sectors. “A set of guiding principles [for the extractive industry] isn't likely to have direct applicability in the IT sector,” he said.
In his report, he says the oil, gas and mining sector “utterly dominates” 65 alleged cases of corporate human rights abuses recently reported by activists. The food and drinks industry comes “a distant second”, followed by clothing and footwear.
Sir Geoffrey Chandler, the former Shell director and ex- chair of Amnesty International UK business group, welcomed the report, saying: “Never have companies faced greater need to persuade the public that they are motivated by principle as well as profit.”

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