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21 Sep 2021

Bennett Freeman

In Memory of John G. Ruggie: Tribute by Bennett Freeman

A Towering, Monumental Legacy—Forever Enduring Yet Challenging

Scholar, diplomat and advocate, John Ruggie was that rare person who sets a standard and changes the world. Rarely has one person combined such a formidable intellect with force of personality to turn theory into practice. He not only authored eponymous principles, still referred to as the “Ruggie Principles” as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. John set an agenda for decades if not for the ages.

I first met John in spring 2000 when he was UN Assistant Secretary General working to refine the UN Global Compact before its launch that July. I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor working to develop what became the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights launched that December. My objective was two-fold: first, to convey U.S. Government support for the Global Compact; second, to brief him on that multi-stakeholder initiative designed to set a global standard on one set of tough human rights issues where we had the potential to find common ground among a group of companies and NGOs convened by the U.S. and UK governments. After he accepted my (tongue-in-cheek) apology for not taking his international relations theory course as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the late Seventies, we agreed to support our respective efforts on behalf of the UN and the USG. I then had the privilege of working with John intermittently—at times intensively— over the last two decades and to watch with admiration and appreciation the historic impact he made.

John did not start with a blank slate but turned disparate fragments into a coherent design. Before the creation of John’s first mandate in spring 2005, the principle of human rights risk assessment and in turn of human rights due diligence had been established—and the first human rights impact assessment had been conducted. But that early progress was overshadowed by the fight over the UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations that so polarized NGOs and companies as well as governments. His mandate shifted the terms of debate and ended the argument, once and for all, that business must respect human rights.

Confident in his convictions but always listening and learning, John built on those earlier models and precedents that came before his mandate and—in a feat of genius—transformed them into a frame of reference and then a framework for action that defined the already emerging but still inchoate business and human rights agenda. The “protect, respect and remedy” triptych that he produced at the end of his first mandate became the frame of reference to put business respect for human rights in a normative context. The UNGPs, the crowning achievement of his second mandate in 2011, became our operational as well as normative framework for action.

John’s contribution to the field of business and human rights was towering and monumental. His legacy will endure as long as we work and fight to fulfill its promise. We have so much yet to achieve to protect and respect human rights—and to remedy human rights abuses—by governments and companies alike alongside the persistent struggles of civil society and human rights defenders around the world.

The UNGPs remain the essential floor which we must continue to nail down, even as we lift the ceiling above. Thanks to John and so many others, that architecture is in place for us to reinforce and extend.

John is at rest and I hope at peace knowing that the business and human rights community will not rest as we carry forward his vital work.

Bennett Freeman served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1999-2001 and as Senior Vice President, Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments from 2006-15. He authored Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights in 2018.