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In memoriam: Professor John Ruggie

Thursday 30 September 2021


The IBA joins the international community in mourning the passing of Professor John G Ruggie, the architect of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the Berthold Beitz Research Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School .

Professor Ruggie served as the UN Assistant Secretary-General from 1997 to 2001 and was instrumental in establishing the UN Global Compact and the Millennium Development Goals. In 2005, he was appointed UN Special Representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His mandate led to the unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council, in June 2011, of the UNGPs – a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. The UNGPs have influenced numerous other international standards, policies and regulations, which have since been implemented.

The IBA has championed and contributed to the work of Professor Ruggie since the beginning of his mandate as UN Special Representative. At its Annual Conference in Vienna in October 2015, the IBA Council adopted its Business and Human Rights Guidance for Bar Associations , and with a resolution of the IBA Council in 2016, the IBA Practical Guide on Business and Human Rights for Business Lawyers was adopted. Both were strongly influenced and informed by Professor Ruggie’s work.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the UNGPs, in June the IBA had the honour of hosting Professor Ruggie on the first episode of its podcast series Sustainable Law in Action. During this conversation, Professor Ruggie highlighted the role of lawyers in supporting businesses to promote and protect human rights, and he referenced the key part the IBA played in disseminating the UNGPs to the broader legal community across the world.

John Sherman was Senior Legal Advisor to Professor Ruggie’s UN Mandate team from 2008 to 2011 and helped him shape and draft the UNGPs. He is the founder of the IBA Corporate Social Responsibility Committee (now the IBA Business Human Rights Committee) and Senior Adviser and General Counsel to Shift, the leading centre of expertise on the UNGPs, the board of which Professor Ruggie chaired. He says that ‘John Ruggie succeeded as a world leader in forging a global business and human rights consensus not because he had all the answers, and not because he was a technical bureaucratic manager. Rather, he succeeded brilliantly because he was, at heart, a mediator who listened closely to people in order to hear the multiple sides of conflict from different perspectives’.

‘Using that skill, he was able to forge a mutually reinforcing framework (Protect, Respect, and Remedy) that took the best from all sides in conflict over the question of business and human rights – States, Business, and Civil Society’, says Sherman.

Stéphane Brabant is the Senior Partner of Trinity International and was part of Professor Ruggie’s expert group, as well as being a close friend of his. He says that within the field of business and human rights, Professor Ruggie ‘made lawyers reconsider their role in advising businesses to help them contribute to a better world with dignity for all people, while balancing that with the necessity of continuing to do business. He gave us the basis for a better-balanced world, respectful of our planet – without doing politics. He is the man who wrote the “fundamentals” for conducting business worldwide’.

‘Through Kofi Annan’s and John Ruggie’s heritage, the conduct of business worldwide shall or rather should never be the same – it shall, should and ought now to be more human’, he adds.

Elise Groulx Diggs is Co-Chair of the IBA Business Human Rights Committee and an associate tenant at Doughty Street Chambers. ‘As lawyers in this area we continue to push the envelope with the UNGPs, for example with respect to corporate liability, in identifying what legal liability is at stake and how to promote respect for human rights and the environment’, she says.

She adds that ‘the proof of John’s achievement is in the legislation that’s appearing now across the world, for example the Modern Slavery Act in the UK, similar legislation in Canada and Australia, human rights and environmental due diligence first in France and now in Germany, Norway and the Netherlands’.

‘The movement John created is having a huge influence on how advisors, especially lawyers, see their role’, she says.

‘For the IBA, John Ruggie was a giant in his field and will be remembered as a friend and a catalyst to the IBA’s involvement in the area of business and human rights’, says Dr Mark Ellis, the IBA’s Executive Director, who notes the IBA’s support in promoting the UNGPs through the adoption of the IBA Practical Guide on Business and Human Rights for Business Lawyers in 2016. ‘The entire international legal community owes a great deal to John’, adds Dr Ellis.

Sternford Moyo, the IBA President, said ‘Professor Ruggie’s legacy and his ground-breaking work will continue to inspire the international legal community in years to come’.

The IBA’s thoughts are with Professor Ruggie’s family and friends.