Information or Infomercial

A wide range of speakers with a wide range of views characterises the IBA. Reuben Guttman of Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC reflects on the week that was.

BOSTON, MASS – From Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Stephen G. Breyer to Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, there was no shortage of legal stars at last week’s 2013 International Bar Association convention. Panelists included Zachery Douglas of Oxford and George Berman of Columbia University, both world leaders in the field of international investment arbitration, and Harvard professor and former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights, John Ruggie.

Ruggie made the point that with panels ranging from anti-corruption measures to corporate social responsibility and human trafficking, much of the 2013 International Bar Association convention is about what he calls “the externalities of globalization.” At a plenary question and answer session with questions posed by Chris Jochnick of Oxfam America in Washington, DC, Ruggie stressed the complexity of the problem, noting that “it is easier to produce theoretical solutions that impress yourself as opposed to practical solutions.”

Touching on the impact of multi-national corporations that manufacture through supply chains, Ruggie addressed the question of whether a global corporation can legitimately disclaim responsibility for human rights abuses at the lowest levels of the supply chain. “It does not make a difference how many layers you have,” said Ruggie, “if you caused the problem, you are responsible for it.” Ruggie added that “the idea that you have no responsibility for what goes on at the bottom [of the supply chain] is no longer acceptable.”

While educational opportunities, such as Ruggie’s discussion in the plenary session, are prevalent at the IBA 2013 convention, there is the potential to be subject to what Americans call an infomercial. For example, at a session on corporate social responsibility, an attorney for a large oil company, which has been the subject of both criminal and civil prosecution, read from a text extolling the social responsibility of his employer. While one panelist indicated that some corporations make a “liability calculus” in determining the risks posed by non-legal compliance, this oil industry representative denied such calculus is ever made.

Panelists and IBA members, of course, represent different nations, cultures, and economic constituencies. Opportunities to learn are ample but part of the learning is understanding that panelists and members arrive with their own agendas.

In 2014, the IBA Convention will be held in Tokyo, Japan.

In addition to his work with the UN, Ruggie recently published Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (Norton 2013).