Corporate lawyers have a higher duty than meeting their clients’ expectations when it comes to business and human rights, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, told the International Bar Association conference in Vienna.  

Annan was speaking alongside John Ruggie, architect of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights on the role of lawyers in implementing the principles. 

Adopted in 2011, the principles amount to a non-binding but UN-endorsed corporate social responsibility charter. Ruggie described them as being based on three pillars: a state duty to protect rights, a corporate responsibility to respect rights and access to remedies for victims of abuses.

Annan (pictured) emphasised the vital role in-house and corporate lawyers have in turning the principles into practice.

‘You are in a unique position of influence. You give your clients the advice they want to hear, but you need to go beyond that,’ he told the packed conference session. Paying a reasonable salary, for example, should not depend on minimum wage legislation.  

‘Tell your clients you don’t need to wait for a government to pass a new law to do what’s right.’

Ruggie rejected criticism of the principles on the ground that they are ‘soft law’, pointing out that the ‘black-letter’ law of formal international treaties had been in decline for two decades. ‘The last multilateral treaty to be lodged with the UN was in 2010, and that was a minor revision,’ he said. 

‘If you’re only going to advise on black letter law, you are going to have less and less to advise on.’

He described as ‘an interesting challenge’ his latest project, to draw up a human rights strategy for the international football body FIFA.