From 25-27 November 2019, Geneva hosted the 8th edition of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, bringing together around 2,000 representatives of government, business, human rights experts, activists and civil society organizations.

The theme of this year’s Forum “Time to act: Governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights” focused on the first pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs) and built on the 2018 edition’s key message that governments need to do more to fulfil their duty to protect people from business-related human rights violations. Despite (or even because of) this year’s focus on governments, the Forum offered a unique opportunity to showcase forward-thinking businesses, participate in constructive dialogues with the public sector, and to shape government action on business and human rights.

The UNGPs – launched in 2011 and since acknowledged as the primary set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy business-related human rights issues – consists of three pillars: the State duty to protect individuals from human rights abuses, the business responsibility to respect human rights, and the role States and business play in ensuring people have access to remedy when business operations and relationships result in negative impacts.

Calls for mandatory legislation are growing louder

To fulfil their duty and to foster business respect for human rights, the UNGPs propose that States consider a “smart mix of measures - national and international, mandatory and voluntary”. Numerous countries are discussing, creating or have already adopted action plans, policies or laws to incentivize, pressure or mandate business respect for human rights. However, discussions throughout the forum highlighted unsatisfactory levels of business performance and disclosure and called into question the effectiveness of efforts and measures taken to date.

As stated by Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer at Aviva Investors, and Chair of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) “That … a full half of companies fail to meet any of the five basic criteria for human rights due diligence should alarm governments and investors. … the CHRB is calling for a rapid acceleration in the uptake of human rights due diligence and for companies, governments and investors to ensure respect for human rights in not optional.”

The tone of the debate seems to be shifting towards mandatory human rights disclosure and due diligence by business and we expect this to be reflected in new or renewed discussions on binding legislation at national and international levels.

Businesses proactively engaging on human rights will be ahead of the curve

Against this picture of both governments and companies falling short of the expectations laid out by the UNGPs, the Forum created opportunities to showcase how forward-thinking businesses are embedding respect for human rights in their business culture, governance, operations and supply chains.

The Forum conveners took efforts to highlight companies that implement the UNGPs effectively by (1) committing to respect human rights, (2) carrying out human rights due diligence for their operations and supply chain, and (3) ensuring effective access to remedy for affected individuals and communities. As referenced by Elżbieta Karska, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights, in her keynote during the opening plenary of the UN Forum: “The 2019 CEO Guide issued by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development signed by the CEOs of 35 large companies headquartered across 17 countries underlines this: Companies that have already begun to implement the UNGPs will be ahead of the regulatory curve.”

A complementary example of being proactive on this subject was provided by companies that call for government action, confirming the UNGPs’ argument that “States should not assume that businesses invariably prefer, or benefit from, State inaction.” In a session titled “Do companies prefer State action or inaction when it comes to promoting business respect for human rights”, a panel with business representatives provided examples of companies actively participating in consultation processes for new or reformed policies and legislation, or setting progressive standards within their own business or industry, and advocating for governments to adopt the same.

The most common arguments for businesses advocating for regulation include:

  • Ensuring expectations for business conduct are clear and policy measures incentivizing and requiring the required conduct are coherent;
  • Creating a more level playing field, disincentivizing laggards from freeriding on leading companies’ efforts to respect human rights; and
  • Calling for support to businesses willing to meet growing stakeholder expectations on business respect for human rights.

Risks and opportunities of technology are front and center

Besides the focal theme of the Forum on how governments can catalyze business respect for human rights, the impact of technology on human rights was a recurring topic of discussion in sessions and side-events.

Concerns are growing over the risks of human rights violations that arise from technology, as well as a realization that we are only beginning to understand the negative impacts of technology. Beyond well-known examples of fake news, harassment and hate speech spreading through social media, an investigation by BBC News found that Instagram and other apps are being used to trade and traffic human beings. Biased data has been called out as posing real threats to the rights and freedoms of people and exacerbate discrimination, even more so when used by artificial intelligence (AI) to predict human behavior or replace human decision-making. Several sessions at the UN Forum addressed the questions begged by these examples: Who is responsible for preventing and mitigating these risks of human rights abuses? Does technology need stronger regulation from the international community and governments? How can the fundamental rights and freedoms of people be protected from tech-driven human rights violations?

At the same time, the Forum provided a space to learn about how technology can be used to bring about positive impact on people’s rights. A side-event hosted for by WBCSD in collaboration with Nestlé and Business Fights Poverty explored specifically how technology can be leveraged to increase transparency in business operations and supply chains, give a voice to workers and ensure the integrity of their work contracts, and reduce the risk of modern slavery.

Follow us on WBCSD’s Human Rights Gateway to stay up to date on business and human rights.

If you were at the UN Forum and have feedback or suggestions for WBCSD or for the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, contact Davide Fiedler (fiedler@wbcsd.org).

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