Some thoughts on how lawyers are responding to the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights

UCL’s Centre for Ethics and Law is tonight hosting Professor John Ruggie, leading light on business and human rights and the driving force behind the UNs Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  His work provides a fascinating insight into corporate change and the difficulties of globalising international order.

I want to concentrate here on the implication of his work for lawyers.  The IBA has produced a working draft of  Business  and  Human  Rights  Guidance  for  Bar  Associations, 2014.  It is the product of 8 lawyers from around the globe and provides an excellent introduction to area for the uninitiated and teases out some of the very interesting issues that face lawyers.  Those issues are posed as legal advisers to businesses . They are also posed to lawyers as owners, managers of businesses in their own right. In particular two of the three pillars of the Guiding Principles  on business and human rights apply:

(2)  all  business  enterprises  have  a  responsibility  to  respect  human  rights,  which  means  to  avoid  infringing  on  the  rights  of  others  and  to  address  negative  impacts  with  which  they  may  be  involved,  and

(3)  there  is  a  need  for  access  to  effective  remedy  for  victims  of  business-‐related  human  rights  abuses.

The IBA seeks to “encourage  bar  associations  and  law  societies  around  the  world  to  take  affirmative  steps  to  develop  an  overall  strategy  for  integrating  the  Guiding  Principles  into  their  work  for  the  legal  profession”.  In this country the Law Society have taken up the cudgels in their own working party report.  It might be thought that the Bar, and the regulators would also take an interest.  The IBA suggests Bar Associations (which I would read as including the regulators in this country), should adopt organisational structures for managing business and human rights activity; consider programmes of comprehensive  education; review  ethical  codes  of  conduct  in the light of the Guiding Principles and provide guidance  and  technical  assistance on how lawyers should implement the principles.

What should lawyers be doing?

The UN Guiding Principles do not, in and of themselves, create new rights though they can influence States and others (e.g. influencing or being incorporated into contracts, joint venture agreements, and the like).

And yet :

The  responsibility  to  respect  human  rights  is  the  baseline  expectation  of  all  business  enterprises.  The  Guiding  Principles  do  not,  and  cannot,  impose  legal  obligations  on  companies  directly  but  neither  are  they  voluntary;  businesses  (and  others)  do  not  have  to  ‘sign-‐up’  to  them  for  them  to  apply.  Aspects  of  the  responsibility  to  respect  human  rights  may  be,  and  often  are,  compelled  by  national  law  (for  example,  through  health  and  safety,  non-‐discrimination,  environmental  or  criminal  laws).  However,  the  responsibility  exists  over  and  above  compliance  with  national  laws  and  regulations  and  –  importantly  –  it  exists  independently  of  the  state’s  ability  to  meet  its  own  duty  to  protect  human  rights.  That  is,  national  law  does  not  limit  the  responsibility  to  respect  human  rights.

The  responsibility  to  respect  means  that  businesses  should  avoid  infringing  on  the  human  rights  of  others,  and  should  address  negative  human  rights  impacts  with  which  they  may  be  involved  (Guiding  Principle  11).  Companies  are  expected  to  take  appropriate  action  to  avoid  causing  or  contributing  to  adverse  human  rights  impacts,  and  to  seek  to  prevent  or  mitigate  impacts  that  are  directly  linked  to  their  operations,  products  or  service  by  their  business  relationships,  even  if  the  company  itself  did  not  cause  or  contribute  to  the  impact  (Guiding  Principle  13).  ‘Business  relationships’  refer  to  those  relationships  a  company  has  with  business  partners,  entities  in  its  value  chain,  and  any  other  non-‐state  or  state  entity  directly  linked  to  its  business  operations,  products  or  services.  They  include  indirect  business  relationships  in  an  enterprise’s  value  chain,  beyond  the  first  tier,  and  minority  as  well  as  majority  shareholding  positions  in  joint  ventures.

The Guidance sets out the kind of international  human right obligations which the Principles seek to govern. The (non-exaustive) list is:

Right  to  Life , Right  not  to  be  subjected  to  Torture,  Cruel,  Inhuman  and/or  Degrading  Treatment  or  Punishment, Right  to  Liberty  and  Security  of  Person, Right  to  be  Free  from  Slavery,  Servitude  and  Forced  Labour  Right  to  Freedom  of  Movement   Right  to  Privacy , Right  to  Freedom  of  Thought,  Conscience  and  Religion  Rights  to  Freedom  of  Opinion  and  Expression  Right  to  an  Adequate  Standard  of  Living , Right  to  Work  Right  to  Freedom  of  Association  and  rights  to  Collective  Bargaining , Right  to  Enjoy  Just  and  Favourable  Conditions  of  Work , Right  to  Freedom  of  Assembly  Right  to  Participate  in  Public  Life  Right  to  Take  Part  in  Cultural  Life , Right  to  Health  Right  to  Water  and  Sanitation  Right  to  Education , Right  to  a  Family  Life, Right  to  Non-‐Discrimination  Rights  of  Minorities , Rights  of  Protection  for  the  Child  Right  of  Self-‐Determination,  Rights  to  freedom  from  war  propaganda  and  freedom  from  incitement  to  racial,  religious  or  national  hatred, Right  to  social  security, Right  of  detained  persons  to  humane  treatment, Right  to  recognition  as  a  person  before  the  law, Right  to  a  fair  trial  (and  aliens’  rights  to  due  process  when  facing  expulsion), Right  to  be  free  from  retroactive  criminal  law, Right  not  to  be  imprisoned  for  inability  to  fulfil  a  (private)  contract.

Furthermore gross human rights breaches should be treated as ‘a legal compliance issue’.

What is expected of businesses?

The guidance suggests each business, however large or small, should have:

  • A high-‐level policy  commitment  to  respect  human  rights,  supported  by  operational-‐ level  policies,  training,  and  incentives  that  embed  the  commitment  throughout  the  organisation  (Guiding  Principle  16).

  • Human rights due  diligence  processes  through  which  the  business:  (i)  assesses  the  actual  and  potential  impacts  on  human  rights  arising  from  its  own  activities  and  through  its  business  relationships,  (ii)  integrates  the  findings  from  these  assessments  and  takes  action  to  prevent  or  mitigate  adverse  impacts,  (iii)  tracks  the  effectiveness  of  its  efforts  to  address  human  rights  impacts,  and  (iv)  is  prepared  to  communicate  these  efforts  to  affected  stakeholders  and  others.  (Guiding  Principles  17–21).

  • The provision of  or  cooperation  in  legitimate  processes  to  remediate  human  rights  harms  that  the  business  has  caused  or  contributed  to,  which  may  include  non-‐ judicial  operational-‐level  grievance  mechanisms  (Guiding  Principles  22,  29  and  31).

The guidance distinguishes between human rights harms caused, contributed to, or liked to the business.  Importantly for lawyers, advising or assisting clients may well constitute linkage, contribution or (more rarely) cause.  Depending on which point on this scale the ‘linkage’ falls action may be expected to stop, prevent, mitigate and/or remediate the harms.

It is when the guidance turns specifically to lawyers and legal business that things get particularly interesting.  Advice ot clients on the law applicable to them in any jurisdiction may not be enough to comply with the principles.  National  law  may be at  odds  with  international  human  rights  standards and the lawyer may need to help the client look at ways of meeting international standards in spite of such laws.  Companies  specific  policy  commitments,  membership  of (say) industry based associations may mean they have already signed up to broader commitments.  The guidance claims:

…corporate  in-‐house  legal  leaders  are  now  challenging  their  outside  counsel  to  proactively  advise  them  on  human  rights  risks

Reputational risk and the possibility of law changing to bring more formal sanctions or remedies for human rights violations also may drive lawyers to providing more rounded, human rights sensitive advice, as may corporate reporting requirements.

The reach of the guidance goes beyond advice to clients though.  Particularly of note is the warning that:

 a  company’s  litigation  strategy  and  tactics  has  recently  been  raised  as  a  topic  to  explore  under  the  responsibility  to  respect  human  rights.  As  Professor  Ruggie  has  said,  business  lawyers  may  wish  to  consider  ‘laying  out  for  their  client  the  entire  range  of  risks  entailed  by  the  litigation  strategy  and  tactics,  including  concern  for  their  client’s  commitments,  reputation,  and  the  collateral  damage  to  a  wide  range  of  third  parties’  as  part  of  helping  their  client  understand  the  full  implications  of  any  proposed  approach  to  responding  to  claims  of  human  rights  harms.

It seems to me that there is a plausible argument that lawyers will need to consider the implications not just for the client’s risk but also for their own conduct risk.  Judges voice anxiety from time to time about litigation tactics (evidence polishing for instance); abuse of process, wasted costs, as well as general ethical principles demand a degree of independence in the execution of litigation and advocacy standards, with a view on the lawyers obligations to protect the rule of law and the administration of justice.

The IBAs draft already emphasises the interplay between duties of candour and independence in the provision of advice. It also tackles, “potential  tensions  between  a  lawyer’s  responsibilities  under  applicable  codes  of  conduct  and  the  Guiding  Principles.”  This is one of the reasons it recommends Bar Associations [or regulators] review their codes.

There is also an expectation that, “firms  might  be  expected  to  exercise  leverage  in  order  to  influence  their  clients  to  respect  human  rights” and how they might do that. What might leverage look like?

There  are  a  number  of  ways  in  which  a  law  firm  may  be  able  to  increase  its  leverage  either  alone  or  with  others,  for  example:

  • It could emphasise  to  all  its  clients  up-‐front  that  it  intends  to  advise  on  the  ‘big  picture’,  which  includes  human  rights  risks,  in  order  to  provide  greatest  value  to  clients,  particularly  those  operating  in  risky  environments.
  • It could tactfully  raise  with  a  client,  in  anonymised  form,  the  kinds  of  problems  that  other  companies  have  faced  when  they  have  not  fully  addressed  human  rights  issues  associated  with  a  similar  transaction,  and  offer  to  advise  on  how  to  avoid  those  problems.
  • It could offer  to  provide  capacity-‐building  to  clients  and  their  legal  departments  on  human  rights  issues,  either  by  itself  or  with  outside  experts  as  appropriate.
  • It could provide  advice  and  services  on  business  and  human  rights  on  a  pro  bono  basis  to  clients.
  • It could issue  client  briefings  and  alert  bulletins  on  specific  human  rights  issues  related  to  its  individual  practice  groups  that  highlight  the  kinds  of  legal  and  regulatory  developments  outlined  in  Part  2  of  this  Guidance.
  • It could participate  in  multistakeholder  dialogues  or  fora  where  the  firm  can  champion  business  and  human  rights  issues
  • It could support  the  efforts  of  law  societies  and  bar  associations  to  provide  training  and  guidance  for  member  lawyers  on  business  and  human  rights  issues.

Some of this leverage is very gentle indeed, but the softly softly approach is consistent (perhaps) with Ruggie’s principled pragmatism. The IBA clearly are very conscious of the business interests of legal businesses here.

There is an expectation that (proportionate to the risks) human  rights  due  diligence  is done by law  firms on clients and transactions.

…In  assessing  impacts,  a  firm  will  want  to  consider:  (1)  the  stakeholders  whose  rights  may  be  affected  by  the  activity  or  project  for  which  legal  advice  or  services  are  being  sought  (eg,  factory  workers  in  a  major  supplier;  local  communities  around  a  mining  project);  (2)  the  severity  of  potential  impacts  (eg,  a  major  factory  accident;  excessive  violence  by  security  forces  protecting  the  mine);  and  (3)  the  likelihood  of  potential  impacts,  based  on  the  client’s  operating  context,  business  relationship  context,  and  management  system  context

There is a definite sense of a real capacity problem here.  That structurally lawyers are not always well placed to conduct such due diligence and may not always have the skills to do so:

a  lawyer’s  limited  knowledge  of  the  underlying  facts,  and  constraints  on  his  or  her  ability  to  learn  more,  may  prevent  a  full  assessment  of  the  likelihood  of  an  impact.  Compared  to  in-‐house  counsel,  a  law  firm  may  not  understand  the  full  scope  of  the  client plans  but  may  only  be  called  in  to  address  a  narrow  legal  issue,  and  the  client  may  not  be  willing  to  pay  to  let  the  firm  dig  more  deeply.  Absent  client  permission,  the  law  firm  will  be  precluded  from  engaging  with  potentially  affected  stakeholders,  and  may  not  have  the  capacity  or  expertise  to  do  so  in  any  event.  In  such  cases,  the  firm  will  have  to  make  reasonable  assumptions  based  on  what  it  knows  about  the  matter,  what  it  can  learn  from  third  party  experts,  and  what  is  publicly  available.

The idea that clients should pay for law firms to do due diligence on them is an interesting one; though of course all clients ultimately pay indirectly for this kind of work how many businesses would ask the clients to pay directly, I wonder.

How might we expect law firms to respond to this draft guidance?  We might get some clues from the  earlier document from The Law Society’s Business and Human Rights Advisory Group January 2014 document.  The recommendations were a bit more tentative and less detailed than the IBA’s guidance.  A point worth noting is that the professional principle which gets the most attention is the duty to act in the client‘s best interests.

Acting in the client‘s best interests and advising on the prevention and mitigation of adverse human rights impacts should go hand in hand. Providing information and advice on human rights risks does not require the lawyer or client to agree on what is ethically right or wrong but provides important context and improves legal advice.

This is a view which emphasises the non-bindingness of the Guiding Principles and does not address the extent to which serious breaches of international human rights obligations should be treated as legal compliance issues.  It also (I think) avoids the tricky issue of the extent to which lawyers are linked or contribute to the harm inflicted by their client assisted by legal advice and other work.  This emphasis on one principle is particularly curious given that professional obligations perhaps more consistent with the Guiding Principles are not mentioned at all. Hence the first (and pre-eminent) principle that binds solicitors is the obligation to, “uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice; and the third principle is to “not allow your independence to be compromised;”.  Now I can understand why the Law Society working group might be keener to emphasise the client friendly aspects of the proposals.  And I can also see the argument that it is not clear whether and how the Guiding Principles inform the solicitors’ promotion of these principles.  But there is an at least as plausible argument that the obligation to promote the rule of law and the administration of justice is engaged and that the Society’s commitment to and promotion of the Guiding Principles is both more convincing and more meaningful if all the relevant professional principles are at least discussed and, preferably, also seen as engaged.


About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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2 Responses to Some thoughts on how lawyers are responding to the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights

  1. Andrew says:

    Is a member of the Bar who successfully mitigates for a rapist so that he gets, say, six instead of eight years, and serves three instead of four, acting in breach of the human rights of the woman whom his client rapes during the first year of his release?

    This is an attempt, dress it up how you like, to make a square peg fit a round hole and it does not work.

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