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In Memory: John Ruggie — Champion for Business and Human Rights

The world has lost a pioneer in human rights and business. John Ruggie was the driving force behind the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the architect of the UN Global Compact, which helped the United Nations win the Nobel Prize in 2001. He was also a gifted professor, mentor, and ally.

In 2005, Professor Ruggie was appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to be the first ever Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. In this capacity he worked to create the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, also known as the “Ruggie Principles”.

I have been fortunate to work with companies helping them to implement the Guiding Principles. The Guiding Principles are also featured in my book: The Corporate Responsibility Code Book, now in its third edition.

I feel very fortunate to have intersected with John at so many points in my career. First as a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, when John Ruggie was Dean, then at the Twentieth Century Fund, where I was working and John was writing a book. In the early days of the UN Global Compact and Guiding Principles, John was a tireless advocate and our paths crossed at many events around the world. I was honored to be interviewed by John’s team at the Kennedy School at Harvard on ways to address access to remedy. John was a colleague at the Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum, where I heard him speak in June at the 10th Anniversary of the Guiding Principles.           

As the world mourns the loss of this exemplary leader, this is an excellent time for Boards and leaders to reflect on the Guiding Principles and rededicate ourselves to their adoption.

The Guiding Principles are a remarkable accomplishment for several reasons. First, they articulate the role of states and of business in addressing human rights.

  1. States have a duty to protect human rights.    
  2. Business has a responsibility to respect human rights
  3. Those who are harmed must have access to remedy

Second, the Ruggie Principles address the rights of women and of indigenous peoples, both of which are forgotten in many fora.  

Third, the Principles give us a useful vocabulary to talk about human rights, which is especially relevant in this time of COVID.

One essential term in addressing human rights is “due diligence.” Under the UN Guiding Principles, companies need to have a policy in place committing to respect human rights. This commitment, however, does not go far enough. Companies must also conduct a due diligence process, in which they identify, preventmitigate, and account for their impact on human rights. The framework also identifies ways in which companies can participate in the remediation process when adversely impacting human rights.   

Companies and their boards of directors should understand the company’s sphere of influence: mapping not only the company’s impact on human rights but those of its partners, including suppliers, security forces, and joint-venture partners. Where might the company exert leverage? How far do the boundaries of a company extend? 

Having worked with companies to create a due diligence process, I can say with certainty that the UN Guiding Principles represent the best tool we have to address business and human rights.

Due diligence has become more relevant than ever in the time of corona virus, literally a matter of life and death. Companies must prepare for the systemic shocks of a volatile and uncertain world. Had companies developed a due diligence process before the virus they could have been in a far better place to address risks and take anticipatory action, such as developing plans for securing protective equipment for workers, supply chain processes, and contingency planning.

Companies and boards of directors that have implemented due diligence find themselves better placed to address their impact on human rights, as well as the impact of systemic shocks to the business. To echo a recent resolution by the European Parliament: “corporate human rights and environmental due diligence is a necessary condition needed in order to prevent and mitigate future crises and ensure sustainable value chains.” This is a time to promote systems and processes that build resilience.

I am grateful to John’s legacy of promoting business and human rights. Now is the time to keep this legacy alive through our actions.


Deborah Leipziger

Deborah Leipziger

She is Consultant on Social Innovation, Sustainability, and Human Rights, Lecturer, Senior Fellow, Institute for Social Innovation, Babson College, USA, Founder, The Lexicon of Change

Owned by: Institute of Directors, India

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    Deborah Leipziger

    Author. Advisor. Sustainability Expert. Lecturer

    Author, Consultant on Social Innovation, Sustainability, and Human Rights, Lecturer, Senior Fellow, Institute for Social Innovation, Babson College, USA, Founder, The Lexicon of Change

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