UN Forum on Business and Human Rights: rhetoric or responsibility?

Louise Eldridge, CORE Policy and Communications Officer

Last week I attended my first UN Forum for Business and Human Rights in Geneva. Here are some impressions from a Forum ‘newbie’.

The Forum has been held every year since the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011. It’s framed around the Principles’ three ‘pillars’: (1) the State duty to protect human rights, (2) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and (3) access to remedy for victims of corporate human rights abuses.

I attended the 2018 Forum on behalf of CORE alongside over 2500 participants from governments and international bodies, business and investors, academia and law firms, NGOs and trade unions, and the media. Under the theme ‘Business respect for human rights – building on what works’, this year’s Forum focused on the second pillar of the UNGPs. Discussion topics included the impact of new technologies such as blockchain and AI, the merits and weaknesses of corporate disclosure initiatives, and the safeguarding of human rights defenders.

There was a high level of business attendance, and overall, company representatives gave the impression of being willing to listen and engage productively in debates. While business engagement is obviously welcome, some corporate participants – for instance, from certain fossil fuel and mining companies have a far from clean record when it comes to social and environmental issues. During one panel debate, indigenous activists asked, “how can we create a climate of trust when we are being murdered and jailed?”, reinforcing the need for State action to protect communities and their lands.

There was a lot of talk of ‘human rights due diligence’ (HRDD) during the Forum, but it’s unclear whether everyone has an accurate understanding of what it involves. Many speakers who supported the principle of due diligence warned against the ‘tick-box’ approaches used in auditing and certification processes and recognised that businesses need to take responsibility for human rights abuses, all the way down their supply chains. But there appears to be different views on what exactly constitutes HRDD and whether (and what kind of) legislation is required.

Our position, shared by campaigners across Europe and beyond, is that whilst there is a role for voluntary, business-led initiatives, these are not sufficient to tackle the systematic issues that drive corporate human rights abuses. Figures from the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) illustrate that show that companies are dragging their heels on HRDD: of the 100 largest publicly traded companies in the world, only four scored highly and alarmingly, 40 scored zero.

That’s why we need States to mandate HRDD to ensure companies act to prevent human rights abuses from happening, are held liable and provide remedy for victims when abuses occur. States’ presence and commitment to meaningful action is vital, so it was disappointing not to hear more State voices during Forum sessions. Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, made the welcome suggestion that next year’s Forum should focus on the first pillar of the UNGPs, the State duty to protect human rights.

The Forum is an important space for engagement with a kaleidoscope of stakeholders, to set the scene for areas of work in the coming year, such as policy cohesion on human rights due diligence. However, we now need to ensure that words translate into demonstrable actions – by both business and governments – and to ensure that rights holders take centre stage in future work.