From 26 to 28 November 2019, leaders and representatives from across the business and human rights world gathered in Geneva for the seventh edition of the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. From large corporates to civil society representatives, academics to indigenous groups, the forum saw more than 2000 actors at the forefront of business-related human rights action participate in more than 60 panels related to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

The UNGPs, unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, represent the first global standard on the respective roles of businesses and governments in ensuring that companies respect human rights in their own operations and through their business relationships.
The theme of this year’s forum was “Business respect for human rights – Building on what works”, with sessions throughout the event emphasizing the second pillar of the Guiding Principles: the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was present during the forum and convened a number of side events in line with prominent topics throughout the week. Our highlights from the week are outlined below.

Scale and coherence in corporate due diligence

Discussions throughout the week centered on the proliferation of mechanisms, tools, resources and experiences which are helping companies and stakeholders to scale up their response to human rights. High-level speakers emphasized the push towards scale, but also towards the coherence of efforts, based on the UNGPs and in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Speaking in the plenary, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that “nowhere is the issue of policy coherence on human rights more critical than when it comes to achieving sustainable development and the SDGs. […] Meaningful human rights due diligence should be seen as one of the most fundamental ways companies can contribute to the global agenda.”

Speaking in a panel discussion on “Reinforcing the importance of human rights due diligence for realizing the SDGs”, James Gomme, Director of SDGs at WBCSD, reminded the audience that “it is important to continue to underline the fact that no company can have an SDGs strategy which doesn’t have corporate respect for human rights at the heart of it”.  

Rising investor engagement

The role of the investment community was in the forefront as a key driver of change. Evidence is mounting that respecting and addressing human rights issues – at all management levels and with downstream suppliers – improves risk assessment and long-term security. The issue was highlighted by the launch of the second edition of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, assessing 101 of the largest publicly traded companies in the world on a set of human rights indicators.

To build on this rising awareness, WBCSD hosted a workshop on 29 November in partnership with Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Investor Alliance on Human Rights. The event brought together companies, investors, rating agencies and civil society representatives to discuss how the investor community can exercise its leverage to drive change in companies’ approach to human rights, and how it is valued by the financial markets.

Business leadership from the top

The opening plenary of the forum brought together a panel of business leaders to share their perspectives on embedding respect for human rights in company practice and the importance of human rights due diligence. Panelists highlighted the need for business leadership to drive change throughout an organization, but also shared the challenges faced in tackling human rights issues throughout supply chains and the critical importance of partnerships, collaboration and listening to stakeholders.

The panel closed with a call for action. “I really want to ask the private sector to push the revolution and make this happen” stated Tania Cosentino, Senior Vice President of Customer Satisfaction & Quality at Schneider Electric. “Starting from leading by example – let’s respect human rights – but also using our voice, to promote this inside and outside of our companies.”

Patrick Pouyanne, Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO of TOTAL S.A. agreed. “I am aware of my own role as a leader of a company and I think it is important that leaders speak up on this matter. As I am also an SDG pioneer, I will continue to work on human rights as it is the core of all the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Building on this call, WBCSD together with the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, hosted an evening event exploring the role of senior business leaders in advancing the human rights agenda. The session featured a panel discussion bringing together representatives from Equinor, Stora Enso, the Government of Chile, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Center to share insights on how more top executives can be engaged and become proactive on this crucial topic. 

Opening the evening, Cédric Dupont, Professor of Political Science and Director of Executive Education at the Graduate Institute, highlighted a shift from the power of politics to the power of networks. “New notions of leadership will be based on shared goals and the ability to bring people together”, Dupont advised.

Engaging voices from the ground

The importance of genuine engagement and dialogue with communities and human rights defenders was a continuous message to business throughout the forum.

Speaking in a parallel event on “How indigenous people can ‘renew’ renewable energies”, Antonella Santilli, ENEL Green Power Head of Sustainability, shared her company’s experience: “Thanks to dialogue, relations and exchanges with communities over the years, we have come to understand that land is not just a physical space – it may be ridden with political and gender issues. It can be full of cultural meanings. Our perspectives may be different, but they may not necessarily be in opposition. These different perspectives have been enriching our technological world.”

Kate Gilmore, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights asked of business: “To those building your human rights approach, the challenge is not what you say, but to whom do you listen.”

WBCSD briefings and outputs

Overall, for business, the most valuable takeaway from the week was the wealth of insight, experience and willingness to share that was on offer from the business community and beyond – providing a starting point for others to draw from the experience of leaders and build on what works. To further facilitate this candid spirit of exchange, on the final day of the Forum WBCSD held a Member Roundtable on Business and Human Rights. This yearly recurring event offers member companies and Global Network partners an informal setting to share and learn from the experiences of their peers. This year’s session, gathering two dozen delegates, focused on company experiences in addressing modern slavery risks.

Finally, during the course of the week WBCSD published an issue brief presenting the state of play of corporate respect for human rights and the Council’s perspective on business priorities going forward. With this brief we hope to continue to inform, stimulate, and add to the discussion around the dynamic and essential issue of business and human rights.  

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