Treating human rights lightly: a critique of the consensus rhetoric and the language employed by the Guiding Principles

Surya Deva*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPs) represent the culmination of the mandate of Professor John Ruggie, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations (SRSG). The GPs, which were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in June 2011, have been widely applauded. They have been praised for breaking ‘new ground’ and labelled as the ‘game changer’ as well as a UDHR equivalent for business. The GPs are also proving to be influential in that they have been incorporated into the 2011 update of the OECD Guidelines and the ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility. The European Commission is also taking several steps to implement the GPs. The SRSG has of course praised, promoted and sold the GPs like a charming marketing executive. There is, however, always a danger in uncritically embracing the GPs and the ideas that underpin them. This chapter will critically examine whether the GPs may have undermined the goal of making companies legally accountable for human rights violations. I will argue that the GPs may achieve this unintended result by treating human rights too lightly. Two examples will be offered to illustrate why and how the GPs have not taken human rights seriously. The first example concerns the oft-quoted claim that the GPs represent a ‘consensus’ on the issue of business and human rights. Apart from exposing the fragility and hollowness of this claim, I will contend that the so-called consensus rhetoric has moved the goalpost. Rather than attempting to develop robust measures to secure corporate accountability for human rights violations, the focus of the SRSG’s mandate in the aftermath of the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (UN Norms) shifted to putting in place whatever was acceptable to the Norms’ antagonists. In other words, the consensus rhetoric partly explains why the GPs have treated human rights too lightly.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHuman rights obligations of business
Subtitle of host publicationbeyond the corporate responsibility to respect?
EditorsSurya Deva, David Bilchitz
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK ; New York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781139568333
ISBN (Print)9781107036871
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2013.

Copyright 2015 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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