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27 Sep 2021

In Memory of John G. Ruggie: Tribute by Iain Levine

24 September 2021

As Salil Tripathi noted in his wonderful tribute to John Ruggie who died last week, he and I went to see John in 1999 when we were both working at Amnesty International to talk about the UN Global Compact and his thinking - always at least two steps ahead of the rest of us - about how to strengthen international action to hold companies accountable for their failure to respect human rights.

Years later, when the UN Guiding Principles were approved by the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, the organization that I was then working for, argued that they were too weak saying that “the UN Human Rights Council squandered an opportunity to take meaningful action to curtail business-related human rights abuses”

But we were wrong.

John - together with an extraordinary team of collaborators, advisors and allies - created an international standard that is powerful, principled and pragmatic. And one that is increasingly recognized by the corporate sector, and those who scrutinize, it as defining the minimum acceptable conduct for companies - something that I have really learnt to appreciate since joining the Facebook human rights team last year.

Facebook‘s human rights policy, launched earlier this year, places the UNGPs at the core of its commitments with a strong emphasis on remedy, due diligence and accountability. The FB human rights team consults and cites the UNGPs multiple times daily as we grapple with challenges of upholding our responsibilities.

That doesn’t mean that we always get it right. And we recognize we have more work to do. But John’s vision and his ability to craft clear and detailed guidance as to how to live up to the moral framework for company behavior, set out in the UNGPs, have created an enduring legacy.

More than 300 years ago, the great scientist, Isaac Newton, wrote “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” When it comes to business and human rights, all of us, in one way or another, stand on the shoulders of John Ruggie.