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In Memory of John G. Ruggie: Tribute by Jerome Bellion-Jourdan

Geneva, 24 September 2021

The world has lost a leader, Prof. John Ruggie.

Tribute to the architect of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Prof. John Ruggie passed away on 16 September 2021. It is a loss for all those, like me, who were inspired by John. It is a loss for the world at large as we inherit from his legacy as architect of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. For the cover page of John Ruggie’s book Just Business, Kofi Annan wrote: “It is all too easy when looking at seemingly intractable problems to believe that nothing can be done or that only governments and political leaders can act. Just Business shows us the opposite and underlines how all segments of society must play their part to achieve results that benefit all”. John’s “principled pragmatism” and dedication for real change will continue to guide us on the journey to address our global challenges.

I first met John Ruggie back in 2010. Shortly after I landed from Jerusalem to serve as a European Union diplomat in Geneva, I was asked to take up “Business and Human Rights” as one of the many “files” to handle at the multilateral level. I must admit that I did not know much about the issue when I made my way, a few days later, to the Palais des Nations for the consultations he chaired as Special Representative of the Secretary-General "on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises". Initially appointed by UNSG Kofi Annan and extended by Ban Ki-moon, John Ruggie and his team had embarked in scores of consultations with governments, business, civil society, affected communities and academia. It did not take me long to be inspired by John’s vision, his art of building consensus and his profound humanity. I shared John’s emotion as we were standing in June 2011 at the back of the UN Human Rights Council in Room XX when the President gaveled the adoption without a vote of the resolution presented by Argentina, Ghana, India, Norway and the Russian Federation endorsing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It marked the “end of a beginning” in John Ruggie’s words.

It was the end of a beginning and the beginning of an era of dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles and their three pillars, “The State Duty to Protect”, “The Corporate Responsibility to Respect” and “Access to Remedy” - with huge efforts by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and multiple players worldwide. John was always available to speak, write and advise. The task was gigantic for the UN Guiding Principles to make it globally to top policy makers in governments, regional and international organizations, to the CEOs and boardrooms of companies and throughout their supply chains, to the business organizations, investors and financial markets. The task was gigantic to make a difference in people’s lives, to prevent abuses related to business activities, and to ensure access to remedy when abuses occur.

Jerome Bellion-Jourdan

This transformative agenda was also leveraged to influence sports organizations when, in 2014, Mary Robinson and John Ruggie wrote an open letter to FIFA’s President, on behalf of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, urging the football’s governing body to fully integrate human rights considerations into its decision making: “All countries face human rights challenges, but more effective and sustained due diligence is clearly needed with respect to decisions about host nations and how major sporting events are planned and implemented”, the letter read. FIFA consequently asked John Ruggie to develop recommendations on what it means for FIFA to embed respect for human rights across its global operations, which led to the groundbreaking report “For the Game. For the World” authored with Shift. Around the same time, a Mega-Sporting Events Platform chaired by Mary Robinson brought together international organizations, governments, sports governing bodies, trade unions, sponsors, broadcasters, and civil society. As a member of the Steering Committee, I saw firsthand the power of collective action for human rights, be it those of athletes or migrant construction workers, and the move to the founding of a Centre for Sport and Human Rights.

The “Ruggie principles” were thus not merely "soft law" as some skeptics would portray them, and went beyond the traditional Corporate Social Responsibility. Yes, the UN Guiding Principles are not binding but they recall existing obligations of States. Importantly, they are “conceived to generate an ongoing interactive dynamic of a smart mix of measures – voluntary and mandatory, national and international –” (Guiding Principle 3). Ten years on, much has been done and much remains to be done with a clear direction of travel as recent examples illustrate. In its recently released Human Rights Action Plan (2021-2025), China commits to "encourage Chinese businesses to abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in their foreign trade and investment, to conduct due diligence on human rights, and to fulfil their social responsibility to respect and promote human rights”. And “fingers crossed that the EU will come up with a decent mHRDD”, John wrote to me a few weeks ago as we exchanged on the European Union's developments towards a directive on mandatory Human Rights (and Environmental) Due Diligence. Publicly and privately, John Ruggie was clearly supportive of such EU-wide legislation. In a publication jointly authored with Shift’s President and co-President Caroline Rees and Rachel Davis in May 2021, John Ruggie indicated that the move to mandatory diligence would “transform the power imbalances currently embedded in the BHR space, and at the same time contribute to the move beyond shareholder primacy towards multi-fiduciary obligations.”

Already at the end of his mandate as Special Representative, John Ruggie had clearly stated that the UN Guiding Principles would not exclude further international legal developments. As Chair of the first annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2012, he pointed to the lack of clarity regarding the applicability to companies of international standards prohibiting gross human rights abuses, potentially amounting to international crimes. He suggested that "greater legal clarity is needed for victims and companies alike” and that "only an intergovernmental process can provide that clarity”. There was, however, no State in the Human Rights Council at the time to champion his proposal for a carefully crafted legal instrument. Instead, backed by the “Treaty Alliance” coalition of hundreds of civil society organizations advocating for an all-encompassing legally binding instrument, Ecuador skillfully managed in 2014 to pass a Human Rights Council resolution establishing an Intergovernmental Working Group. After the first session in July 2015 marked by the absence of major players, skepticism of others and an overall strong polarization, John Ruggie warned: "If present dynamics continue, the process is likely to yield one of two outcomes: no treaty at all, or one that squeaks through to adoption but is ratified by few if any major home countries and thus would be of no help to the victims in whose name the negotiations were launched”. John Ruggie further offered his advice in an open letter to the Intergovernmental Working Group ahead of its 4th session in 2018 with ‘Guiding Principles’ for the Business & Human Rights Treaty Negotiations: "Success—not on paper but on the ground—demands deep reflection, good will, and a constructive process that searches for consensus in the knowledge that real change requires it”. His words resonate as we prepare for the 7th session of the Intergovernmental Working Group scheduled in late October 2021 to negotiate the third draft of a legally binding instrument.

The world has lost a leader but John Ruggie left a clear pathway to address the warning by Kofi Annan, which he often quoted: if we cannot make globalization work for all, in the end it will work for none. Among John’s many talents was his ability to connect the dots between what some would, sometimes conveniently, see as separate policy agendas. Addressing the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Guiding Principles in a packed Forum on Business and Human Rights back in 2016, John Ruggie made the following proposition to business and to all : “far from being at the ‘immature’ end of a transformative trajectory of business models, respect for human rights, respect for the dignity of every person, is at the very core of the people part of sustainable development. And as if that alone were not enough, it is also the key to ensuring a socially sustainable globalization, from which business stands to be a major beneficiary”. The world has lost a leader but John Ruggie will continue to inspire with his legacy, an invitation for all to continue the journey to deliver real change, for the people and for the planet.

A warm thank you, John.

Jerome Bellion-Jourdan is Director of the International Negotiation and Policy-Making Program at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. He led negotiations for the European Union on Business and Human Rights in the UN Human Rights Council and represented the EU in several other processes on BHR/RBC from 2010 to 2019.

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