Corporate law firms join UN-led initiative on business and human rights

28 January 2009

Fifteen leading legal firms from around the world will participate in a United Nations-led effort to assess how well national corporate law principles and practices foster a company culture that is respectful of human rights.

"This is extraordinarily important work," said John Ruggie, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights.

"The relationship between corporate law and human rights remains poorly understood. The willingness of so many firms to provide their services pro bono in order to expand the common knowledge base indicates that corporate law firms worldwide appreciate that human rights are relevant to their clients’ needs," he stated in a press release.

A total of 40 national jurisdictions will be explored, chosen in order to ensure a broad geographical spread and a mix of common law, civil law and other legal traditions, as well as reflecting the expertise of the law firms involved.

The 15 firms will look at a range of issues relating to the corporate law business and human rights. These include incorporation, directors' duties, reporting and listing requirements, and shareholder engagement.

Firms will be asked to explore not only what laws currently exist, but also how corporate regulators and courts apply the law to require or facilitate consideration by companies of their human rights impacts and preventative or remedial action where appropriate.

"Corporate law, like other policy domains that shape business practice, traditionally has been kept institutionally and conceptually separate from human rights concerns," Mr. Ruggie said. "Yet recent developments suggest that regulators are beginning to link corporate governance with management of social, environmental and ethical impacts, including human rights."

The Special Representative will publish an analysis of the findings once the project is complete, and then make recommendations to States and businesses. As part of this process, he plans to convene a multi-stakeholder consultation later this year, hosted by York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Mr. Ruggie was appointed to his current role in 2005 and his mandate includes identifying and clarifying standards of corporate responsibility and accountability with regard to human rights.


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