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The People at the Head of the Table Are Talking Past the People Sitting Around the Table

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Last week I sat in on a graduate seminar facilitated by the Honorable Mary Robinson. Not that you might need reminding, but she was the first female president of Ireland (1990-1997), a famously influential former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (1997-2002), and is currently one of the twelve Global Elders. While I'm at it, I might as well mention that she founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, "which aimed to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage." Her new project is The Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, "a centre for education and advocacy on sustainable and people-centred development in the world's poorest communities."

She sat at the head of the seminar table. We discussed the intersection of business and human rights. Actually, she mostly lectured. Perhaps only Professor John Ruggie is as knowledgeable regarding that set of issues. President Robinson and Ruggie are "close friends," so I think it is safe to say that her perspectives are representative of the "mainstream" of the international human rights community -- diplomats, big NGOs, Vice Presidents of Corporate Social Responsibility, etc. Apparently Ms. Robinson is excited about the potential of Professor Ruggie's newly unveiled -- and UN Human Right Council Endorsed! (which is apparently very significant because, as Robinson explained, they could have merely "welcomed" or "accepted") -- "UN 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework for Business and Human Rights."

Really? Like really really? You mean to tell me that a bunch of serious people got together in a room and agreed that they should name their very important agreement "The UN 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework for Business and Human Rights?" I submit that there is perhaps no better evidence of the bankruptcy of the current system of global governance this implausibly pompous name for such a patently worthless document.

I searched the Document-Whose-Name-is-Too-Uppity-to-be-Uttered for a few terms. Ready?:
  • Variations of the word "responsible" appear 14 times in 7 pages
  • Variations of the word "liable" - 0 times.
  • Variations of the word "accountable" - 0 times.
  • Variations of the word "culpable" - 0 times.

Seated around the seminar table was a group of graduate students, many of whom had direct experience working for on behalf of human rights all around the world and in a variety of capacities. One of them had even worked for Ms. Robinson herself. Suffice to say that there seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between Robinson's "we're getting there, all together, with corporate buy-in, gradually" approach and the palpable impatience/skepticism of the students. After so many decades of voluntary agreements, non-binding commitment, vapid principles, and meaningless conferences, one can't blame the students for asking "are we going about this all wrong?"

While President Robinson is generally acclaimed as a human rights hero, she is not going to be this generation's hero. She is too invested in the traditional top-down institutionalized processes of pursuing -- but never yet achieving -- meaningful human rights standards.

Ms. Robinson said she just came from a high level meeting of global financiers in DC yesterday. The Occupy folks were right outside and she said that the topics on the agenda inside the building weren't too far off from the signs being held by the protesters. Let's hope, but those of us around the table were pretty suspicious that while the folks outside were screaming "we have to do something about this injustice!" the guys inside the building were considering "how do we mollify these folks so we can get back to making money?"

The people of the world are demanding justice and opportunity NOW. Too many of even our best political, economic, and cultural leaders seem deeply invested in interminably slow processes that seem flawed from the get-go.

I mean, come on, do we really think that the best way to regulate corporate behavior is engage them in "Multi-Stakeholder Processes?" Fool us once, shame on you, but fool us too many times about the prospects of these amicable agreements and -- well -- you don't have much credibility.

My take is that there is a fundamental democratic deficit that is manifested in a million different ways all around the world. The "haves" have had too much for too long. The "have nots" have no prospect of advancement and nothing to lose, so they are increasingly willing to take risks in the name of reform.

Most Western leaders have matured throughout decades of relative social calm. That is changing. The world citizenry are getting restive like they haven't been in decades. They have demands that they are trying to communicate to their political leaders but it is as if the communication lines have fallen into disrepair. The leaders see their people screaming but they don't seem able to discern what the people are saying.

The leaders are using big words and their enunciation is enviable, but they are not speaking in a language that is relevant to the rest of us.

The rest of us are sitting around the seminar table exchanging skeptical glances.

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