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Insider Perspective: The United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights 2020

The 9th edition of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights took place from 16-18 November 2020 under the theme of "Preventing business-related human rights abuses: The key to a sustainable future for people and planet".

Published: 24 Nov 2020
Author: Davide Fiedler
Type: Insight

Geneva, 24 November 2020: Usually hosted in Geneva, this edition virtually brought together around 4,000 representatives of government, business, human rights experts, activists and civil society organizations, with about 40% of participants being from the private sector.

As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) approach the 10th anniversary of their adoption in June 2021, the purpose of this year’s Forum was as much about looking back and taking stock of the trends and challenges in adopting and implementing the UNGPs, as about looking into the future and how respect for human rights can be the key to a sustainable future.

The UNGPs – launched in 2011 and since acknowledged as the most important framework 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.

Tackling inequalities is moving to the front

In her opening words to the UN Forum, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained how the pandemic is putting at risk and even reversing progress made in previous years towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with extreme poverty and unemployment just two challenges expected to rise due to the pandemic. While “nearly all workers have been affected” she pointed out, “some groups have been particularly hard hit”, in particular women, children and workers in the informal sector.

In this context, governments and business were called upon to ensure that efforts to build back better take into consideration the most vulnerable people. Particularly insightful were the experiences shared by business on how human rights due diligence made their supply chains more resilient to the shocks of the pandemic. Understanding the risks or actual challenges workers face allowed the companies to find solutions that on the one hand supported vulnerable workers, protecting their health or securing their livelihoods, and on the other made their supply chains more resilient and ensured business continuity. In a nutshell, companies embedding human rights due diligence in their management strengthen their supply chains, have better chances of attracting investors and lower cost of capital, experience positive recognition from stakeholders, meaningfully tackle inequalities and make a pivotal contribution towards achieving the SDGs.

Moving towards mandatory human rights due diligence

Last year we reported about the growing calls for legislation on business and human rights. This year we witnessed a significant acceleration of the debate. While recognizing the progress made in corporate respect for human rights through soft law, voluntary measures and reporting requirements in the ten years since the adoption of the UNGPs, Forum participants agreed that change has not been profound nor quick enough to realize the vision of the UNGPs and achieve the SDGs by 2030.

It was noteworthy that businesses called for regulation to level the playing field between companies that already take respect for human rights seriously and those that are not; create legal certainty for companies; and harmonize regulation for companies operating in different markets.

Throughout the week, stakeholders (including business) advocated for regulation to be aligned with the UNGPs to ensure harmonized regulation. This strengthens once again the message that companies that have already begun integrating the UNGPs and in particular human rights due diligence in their practices will be ahead of the regulatory curve.

From commitments to action, and from pioneers to wide adoption of the UNGPs

Driven by the upcoming 10th anniversary of the UNGPs, earlier this year, the UN Working Group launched the UNGPs 10+ project. Its theme of “Business and human rights: towards a decade of global implementation” brings to life two focal points of the discussions at the UN Forum.

First is the necessity to make respect for human rights – its debate as well as its realization – truly global in terms of geography and in terms of encompassing all types of businesses. In most cases, progress made by business – be it on engaging in the business and human rights debate, or on corporate disclosures, practices and actual human rights performance – is limited to a small number of forward-thinking, large companies. SMEs and the informal economy are still not meaningfully included in the business and human rights space. Similarly, policies and regulation on business and human rights are most advanced in developed economies.

Second is the theme’s focus on implementation. In the run up to the UN Forum and during the Forum itself, commitments that over the years had not turned into meaningful action or did not yield the promised results were put in the spotlight. While falling short on promises provided arguments for more stringent rules, as exemplified by the strong trend towards mandatory human rights due diligence described above, the UN Forum also provided opportunities to discuss and highlight other ways to further embed respect for human rights in business faster, deeper and more widely. Among them were capacity building, the role and leverage of investors, and the use of financial and business incentives for companies doing business in line with the UNGPs. Companies committing to respect human rights in their policies or initiatives and platforms they participate in, must ensure they walk the talk and follow through with meaningful action.

WBCSD participation at the UN Forum

The focus of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was placed on co-organizing sessions on the official agenda of the Forum.
As we emphasize in our CEO Guide to Human Rights - recently released in its 2nd edition – engaging transparently with stakeholders is a key action of showing business leadership on human rights.

A number of WBCSD member companies took an active speaking role (Acciona, Aditya Birla Group, CP Group, Enel, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever), with several others engaging in the Forum’s sessions.

On the WBCSD staff’s side, Davide Fiedler spoke at the session “Data: Trends and progress of UNGPs @ 10 and measuring priorities for the next decade” and shared a sneak preview on the results of the assessment of human rights disclosures of WBCSD member companies. The key findings will be publicly available as part of a forthcoming issue brief on trends and developments in corporate respect for human rights, to be released in mid-December.

For his part, in his closing remarks in a panel on “Closing the gap between corporate aspiration and action to respect human rights”, our Managing Director Filippo Veglio emphasized the Council’s determination to continue raising the bar through three specific activities backed by outputs: engage top executives to collectively move from aspiration and commitments to action on human rights; upgrade WBCSD membership conditions through a set of new criteria that include the UNGPs and the area of inclusion, equality, diversity and the elimination of any form of discrimination; and deepen insights on human rights policy and practice across sectors and geographies.

Follow us on WBCSD’s Business and Human Rights Gateway to stay up to date on business and human rights trends, insights and tools.

If you have feedback regarding the UN Forum either for WBCSD or for the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, don’t hesitate to share it with us.

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