Home, Home on the Web: Advancing Business & Human Rights in the Digital World


By Bill Baue of Sea Change Media

The United Nations’ 2005 appointment of Harvard Professor John Ruggie as Special Representative on Business and Human Rights shone a spotlight on the often adverse — and until then under-acknowledged — impact of corporations on human rights.  The UN gave its imprimatur, but no budget, making Prof. Ruggie’s staggering compendium of accomplishments over the past four years all the more impressive.  Invisible behind the research, stakeholder engagement, and public appearances is constant fundraising — and time stolen from his day job and family — to support his vital work.

Neither did the UN provide Prof. Ruggie with a web presence — a blessing in disguise, as navigating UN websites rivals the difficulty of extracting compensation from its labyrinthine bureaucracy (speaking from personal experience.)  Luckily, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre stepped up to offer Prof. Ruggie an unofficial home on its website.  The mountain of materials related to his mandate eventually outgrew the capacity of this BHRRC page to organize them effectively.  So all of us who value this body of work heave a sigh of relief this week as BHRRC launches a new web portal to contain the Ruggie canon.

A key strength of the new portal is its inclusion not only of Prof. Ruggie’s work, but also of commentaries on his work – often critical of his opinions and findings – as well as his responses.  Prof. Ruggie characterizes the portal as “our own version of an ongoing global town-hall meeting . . . that enables real-time exchange of information and dialogue to take place between the mandate and stakeholders all over the world.”  This mirrors the signature BHRRC philosophy of inviting companies to answer critiques, which yields an impressive 80 percent response rate.

This interactive dynamic highlights the value of the web in advancing human rights, which Prof. Ruggie deeply appreciates.  He said so at a recent meeting of the BASESwiki Steering Group, which I attended as a consultant to this project that seeks to leverage the power of web-based crowd-sourcing to help resolve conflicts over human rights abuses outside the courts.  At first skeptical, Prof. Ruggie admitted how he became fascinated by the potential of the web as a tool to connect victims of human rights abuses to resources for remedies.  As well, BASESwiki shows promise for connecting companies to best practice examples for avoiding human rights abuses in the first place, and for restoring justice when they realize transgressions.

BHRRC hosts a counterpart to BASESwiki, the Corporate Legal Accountability Portal, which provides a wealth of information on human rights abuse remediation within courts.  One distinguishing factor, however, is the BASESwiki Community Portal, which provides resources such as a discussion board to host dialogue.  Still in its infancy, the Community Portal shows promise of harnessing collective wisdom throughout the world to solve the problems of corporate human rights abuses – an example that can be replicated in other arenas to use Web 2.0 tools to advance sustainability and corporate accountability.   

This commentary first appeared in the CSRwire News Alert that Sea Change Media writes on a weekly basis.  Sea Change Media is also conducting a six-month joint research fellowship on Web 2.0 and Accountability with Marcy Murninghan and Bob Massie for the Harvard-Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, and will launch a page on the Sea Change site to document this work in the near future.

About Bill Baue

Bill Baue is Co-Director of Sea Change Media, a non-profit that makes connections in the shift to social, environmental, and economic sustainability. He co-hosts/produces Sea Change Radio, a nationally syndicated show that podcasts globally.