Corporate unaccountability continues as civil society sidelined

In the culmination of an intensive six-year process to devise a widely-accepted framework to govern the relationship between businesses and human rights, United Nations Special Representative Professor John Ruggie presented his Final Report on 30 May. While over the course of his two term mandate Ruggie has succeeded in building the requisite level of consensus and momentum, there is much work to be done to move from rhetoric to action.

By Ciana-Marie Pegus, Intern, CIVICUS Organisation Coordination Office

On Monday, there was much excitement at the Palais des Nations in Geneva as a plethora of diplomats, journalists and human rights campaigners gathered to hear and respond to the Final Report on the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights authored by UN Special Representative Professor John Ruggie. Developed as part of Ruggie's mandate to identify standards on corporate accountability for human rights abuses, it possesses an unduly heavy focus on and faith in states. The report is shockingly silent on the role of civil society in acting as a watchdog over the antics and activities of rogue corporations. Indeed, it ignores the fact that civil society has always been and will continue to serve as the principal social force advocating for global justice and accountability for transnational corporations. It is the trade unionists, non-profit organisations, charities, community foundations, academics, research institutes, religious bodies, internet activists and social movements that are the vanguard in challenging the established impunity of corporations and the passivity of states.

More generally, the Ruggie report has spawned criticism from a host of international non-governmental organisations for its inability to establish a robust, legal framework for corporate accountability. Another key concern is its failure to articulate the duty of states to regulate the overseas activities of businesses domiciled within their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Ruggie's work possesses normative potency as it is the product of years of debate and discussion between different sectors, which resulted in a consensus fostered through compromise. Accordingly, Ruggie's report lays the groundwork for a future binding treaty which can be equipped with appropriate monitoring mechanisms.

The past sixty years have borne witness to the energetic expansion of the international human rights movement, but the coercive pressure posed by the pervasive presence and influence of transnational business threatens to undermine progress made. At the same time, the value of commerce in providing meaningful employment, a decent standard of living and in facilitating poverty alleviation is clear. Moreover, business leaders often engage in commendable acts of altruism and some owners of the world's largest industries have endowed billions to human rights organisations and causes. Regularly though, corporate actors fail to comprehend the difference between philanthropy and accountability. Corporate altruism, often incentivised by tax-breaks, is no substitute for accountability for corporate misbehaviour. The support of civil society cannot be bought and sold like a commodity.

International law has instituted a state-centric legal order where the principal addressees of human rights standards are states. A statist notion of development, focusing primarily on economic growth as opposed to human development, has resulted in many states abandoning their domestic and international human rights commitments; sacrificing the rights of their citizens on the altar of the "greater good" of national development. A potent cocktail of weak internal governance mechanisms and economic dependence on foreign direct investment means that developing states are particularly incapable of implementing and enforcing laws that regulate the behaviour of transnational corporations.

Famed Latin American author and anti-imperialist, Eduardo Galeano once wrote, "[T]he worst violators of nature and human rights never go to jail. They hold the keys." In a world where the interests of corporate actors are often intermingled with the interests of those who hold power, it is the duty of civil society to confront structural inequalities. As a platform organisation, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) stands in solidarity with its civil society members across the world who, through collective and coordinated global action, struggle to break down the legal, procedural and material barriers to justice that in the past have served to establish a de facto state of immunity for corporations.

CIVICUS members have found themselves on the frontline battling the nefarious effects of unabated corporate greed. A pertinent example of this is the case of human rights defender Dr. Yuri Giovanni Melini of Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala. From the shadow of the Marlin mine in San Marcos, Guatemala, he has faced threats, intimidation and even an attempt on his life due to his struggle to ensure that the Vancouver-based Goldcorp subsidiary respects the collective land rights of the Sipakapense Maya. His tale parallels the experiences of repression and adversity also faced by the Oil Workers Rights Protection Organisation in Azerbaijan in their efforts to tackle systemic corruption.

Notwithstanding ongoing struggles, the collective power of organised civil society must not be underestimated. Businesses can and have had their operations brought to a standstill by community resistance. If a climate is deemed to be inhospitable for business, financiers pull out, partners jump ship and governments react badly. The global communications revolution has enabled rapid knowledge-sharing between networks of NGOs, activists and academics and consequently companies and governments are more likely to uphold their commitments, acting in the belief that their missteps will be made public. In this new global governance paradigm, through strategic coalitions civil society can reverse asymmetries of power and exercise leverage to influence the conduct of the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy.

Though not as radical as many non-governmental organisations had hoped, Ruggie's Final Report does underscore a transformation in the perception of the relationship between business and human rights. It represents an important analytical and programmatic tool to assess the human rights impact of planned and current business operations, as well as establishing remedies and protocols for good business practice. Nonetheless, in the absence of a body of international binding rules, no official recourse to justice exists. The Ruggie Report is merely the first victory in the long battle to establish an international treaty requiring that all states ensure businesses respect international human rights law and operate according to first-rate environmental standards.