J. G. RUGGIE, Just Business. Multinational Corporations and Human Rights, W.W.Norton, New York – London 2013

Martin Schlag

The author was the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises who published the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”. These can be summed up in three concepts: states must protect, companies must respect, those who are harmed must have redress. The 1990s were an age of “corporate globalization”, however, “globally operating firms are not regulated globally” (p. xvi). The response of governments to non regulation was a growing awareness for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Nevertheless the infractions of human rights by corporations increased during the 1990s. The reasons for this are the new challenges to business posed by globalization in controlling their value chains. “To oversimplify only slightly, as governments moved towards greater deregulation and privatization, they promoted CSR initiatives and private-public partnerships in place of more direct governance roles.” (p. xxvii) Ruggie sums up the situation at the outset of his mandate as a divided arena of lacking shared knowledge; fragmentary governance systems¸ growing awareness in civil society, and occasional lawsuits against companies. He describes his method as “principled pragmatism”: unflinching commitment to the principles of human rights and a “pragmatic attachment to what works best in creating change where it matters most”. (p. xlii) He is convinced that a central authority cannot govern the world economy, but that we are in a situation of “polycentric governance” composed of three distinct governance systems: state public law; civil governance; and corporate governance combine and jointly influence the economy. In the first chapter Ruggie analyzes the actual infractions of human rights committed by large corporations: practically each and every right in the International Bill of Human Rights and the ILO Convention has been infringed on. Low income societies with high corruption and little political freedom foster business with little respect for Human Rights. The 1990s ushered in a new phase in the history of global markets, in which market actors were faced with highly challenging sociopolitical contexts. “When it came to business and human rights, neither governments nor companies were prepared for this wave of globalization.” (p. 34) The whole range of human rights, not only workers’ rights, are affected. Two extreme approaches are possible: one, to rely on binding legal instruments; two, to trust only in voluntary self-constraint of business. Neither can do what it promises: “the first because it expects too much from the system of international public governance, and the second because it permits too little.” (p. 171) The author’s hope is that the “Alien Tort Statute” (ATS) may prove to be an instrument that could give a stronger clout to international human rights instruments. The ATS is from 1789 and was originally aimed against piracy, disregard of Ambassadors or safe conduct. It stated that an alien was to be tried by an American Federal Court (and not by State jurisprudence) in case of infractions against international law or Treaties of the USA. This statute was dormant during two centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1980s. At the time Ruggie was writing, there was a case pendant at the Supreme Court whether US-Courts should continue to use the ATS as a basis for their global competence against egregious human rights infractions by corporation that had activity in the USA. In the meantime the Supreme Court decided (April 2013: Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.) they should not: there must be a strong link to the USA. Ruggie suggested this solution hoping that this could catalyze other States to enact similar legislation and finally lead to an international legal instrument, like the UN Convention against Corruption (2003). A final paragraph of this extremely interesting and well-written book is worth quoting: “Indeed, history teaches us that markets pose the greatest risks – to society and to business itself – when their scope and power far exceed the reach of the institutional underpinnings that allow them to function smoothly and ensure their political sustainability. […] Multinational corporations operate globally. Political authority remains fragmented and anchored in territorial states.” (p. 201) Not even international organizations have the global reach of markets, firms, and civil society actors. Any solution must involve not only governments or public institutions but draw in business, corporations, the economy and draw on the interests, capacities, and engagement of market actors and the intrinsic power of the idea of human rights. The UN Guiding Principles express the potential of this polycentric approach and thus contribute to a socially sustainable globalization. The Church as global organization can make good use of the examples and lessons made by John G. Ruggie. Her Social Teaching shares the same aims, namely defending the inalienable rights of the human person over and above all other interests. Practical experience and Anglo-Saxon “principled pragmatism” are important ingredients to avoid utopian formulations or aspirations.

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