The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their implementation by law firms

A4ID is pleased to announce that John Sherman, General Counsel and Senior Advisor to the SHIFT Project and former member of Prof. John Ruggie’s team, will be joining us on 16 September 2011 to discuss the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their implementation by law firms.

The meeting will bring together a small group of senior lawyers from leading law firms to suggest ways in which the Guiding Principles apply to firms’ activities as business entities.

Many law firms have already shown their public support for the Guiding Principles, and there has been much important discussion around how lawyers should advise clients on their interpretation. What has so far been missing is a critique of how the Principles may affect a law firm’s operations and a set of practical recommendations drawn up by lawyers outlining the ways these should be implemented.

John Sherman said, "Today’s large, multinational law firms form an integral part of the global economy.  They operate with thousands of employees in numerous countries, and, like other business enterprises, have the capacity to affect internationally recognised human rights. They are also special institutions, with unique responsibilities to their clients.  

“Under the Guiding Principles, the responsibility of law firms to avoid and address their adverse impacts on human rights applies as to them as it does to any other business, and is defined by their impact on human rights through their direct operations, and through their business relationships.”

What are the Guiding Principles?

The Guiding Principles were drawn up by Prof. John Ruggie as a means of implementing the UN’s ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ policy on Business and Human Rights. They were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011.

The Principles aim to address and prevent the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity, providing clarity with regards to what is expected of businesses and allowing other stakeholders to judge their behaviour.

Although the primary duty to protect human rights lies with national governments, there is an increasingly widespread expectation that businesses be held to account by employees, suppliers and the communities in which they operate.

John Sherman said, “In light of the unprecedented and powerful normative force of the Guiding Principles as a standard for global business conduct, law firms should take steps to ensure that their business aligns with this standard."

Man in paddy field in India

Human rights and international development

Rather than being seen as at odds with international development aims, engagement with the private sector is now seen by many as necessary for delivering effective development programmes. Corporate Social Responsibility is no longer an ‘after thought’ for business, but is becoming a core part of operations.

However, there are still many instances where the actions of business negatively impact on development at a local and national level, and which are hampering progress towards the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.

The intertwined nature of business practice, protection of human rights and development progress, is the reason why A4ID is keen to explore ways in which all actors – including law firms – can play a meaningful role in implementing the Guiding Principles.

A4ID Chief Executive, Yasmin Batliwala, said, “A4ID believes that when businesses fail to protect human rights, they are also preventing progress towards sustainable development. For a long time NGOs have realised that in order to achieve success in development or human rights it is important to see them both as mutually reinforcing. The promotion of human rights creates an environment where development is possible, and development progress can help drive towards the realisation of human rights.

“We see the new Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as an important piece of soft law that will encourage businesses to take their responsibility towards the developing world seriously and help foster an environment where progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is supported. We see that it is important for law firms to play their part in this process, both through the advice they give their clients but also through their actions as responsible businesses.

“It is for this reason that A4ID is bringing together leading law firms so they can discuss the issues related to the implementation of the Guiding Principles that are unique to them as law firms and to produce recommendations drawn up by the legal community, and for the legal community which go beyond the ‘easy and obvious’ but which remain practical and realistic.”

Practical recommendations

Participants at the meeting will discuss various issues that are often peculiar to law firms including business relationships, employment issues, supply chains and clients.

Participation in the meeting is by invitation only, however, the select group of lawyers will aim to draw out practical recommendations for firms which will be presented in a public report after the meeting.

Read more about the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 

Listen to an interview with Prof. John Ruggie’s former legal advisor, Vanessa Zimmerman  


25 August 2011 - 12:35pm