Reflections on the 7th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

Written by Elizabeth Umlas

December 7, 2018

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, held every November in Geneva, might be a victim of its field’s success. Business and human rights (BHR) has emerged as a topic of study and practice in the past 20 years, and has taken off since the 2011 endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), whose 47 member states are mandated to promote and protect human rights globally.

Last week I attended the 7th BHR Forum, a sprawling event that has clearly become an important platform for the field but also reflects the largely unfulfilled promise of holding corporations accountable for their involvement in human rights violations. The forum emerged from the work of John Ruggie, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. His mandate (2005-11) was meant primarily to clarify the responsibility of the private sector with regard to human rights, a subject of international debate for decades. Ruggie formulated the “protect, respect and remedy” framework, which is based on three pillars: (1) states’ duty to protect people’s human rights (including from corporate-related violations), (2) corporate responsibility to respect human rights (at a minimum, companies should not harm people’s rights, and if they do, they must address their adverse impacts), and (3) access to remedy (victims of corporate-related human rights abuses must be able to obtain a remedy). Ruggie then put forward the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights (UNGPs) to guide implementation of the framework.

When the HRC endorsed the UNGPs, it also established the BHR forum “to serve as a global platform for stakeholders to ‘discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles and promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights…as well as identifying good practices.’” Whereas about 1,000 people participated in the first forum in 2012, the three-day event in 2018 attracted over 2,500 participants from government, business, civil society, academia, trade unions, the media and other sectors.

The theme of this year’s forum was “Business respect for human rights – building on what works.” Its main focus was on the second pillar, “corporate responsibility to respect human rights,” with an emphasis on the UNGPs’ requirement that companies conduct human rights due diligence (HRDD) to prevent and address adverse impacts on rights-holders. In practice, this means a company must identify potential and actual adverse human rights impacts associated with its actions (or inactions), integrate these findings into its operations at all levels, monitor and track its impacts on an ongoing basis and publicly communicate on how it is dealing with these impacts.

Several key takeaways stood out for me following this year’s forum: 

  • Human rights defenders and institutional investors are among the groups gaining attention in the world of BHR;
  • Persistent rights violations in global supply chains, which have been a topic of long-standing concern within BHR, continued to receive a large share of attention at the Forum, with a welcome move toward taking a systemic approach to addressing these violations;
  • Access to remedy for victims of corporate-related human rights violations was the subject of some of the sessions in 2018, but the theme did not figure as centrally as in previous fora.  And yet access to remedy continues to be perhaps the area of least progress in BHR. One could reasonably argue that the emphasis on human rights due diligence at this year’s forum is part of the necessary, if somewhat belated, attention being paid to preventing these violations in the first place. But that does not take away from the need to continue to shine a bright light on how to hold companies accountable for human rights abuses with which they are associated.

The forum sessions looked at groups at particular risk of human rights violations (women, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, human rights defenders, children) and specific challenges such as the impact of technology on human rights, climate change and its human rights implications, business in conflict-affected settings. The format this year featured dozens of “snapshot” sessions: 15-minute presentations by one or two speakers, many of them on lessons learned, case studies or insights from initiatives around the world.

There are often multiple sessions running during a given time slot, so one can attend only a sampling. With that caveat, and based on the sessions I was able to attend, below are a few highlights:

  • The importance of human rights defenders was a theme that ran throughout the Forum. The term covers not only NGO activists but indigenous community members, trade union leaders, journalists and others. Although their work is not new, an extremely disturbing trend is the rise in attacks on human rights defenders, particularly in developing countries, by both state and corporate entities. Within this context, a number of indigenous peoples have journeyed to the BHR forum every year to bear witness to corporate- and state-related human rights violations in their communities, often in connection with projects (extractive, agribusiness, infrastructure) being carried out by private sector entities. I had the opportunity to hear several of these representatives speak this year. The testimonies they delivered were powerful and eloquent. Their courage in speaking out publicly was notable, especially since in growing numbers they have been labeled ‘criminals’ for defending their land and other resources. There were also sessions in which encouraging (if rare) examples were presented of ‘meaningful engagement’ by companies of indigenous communities affected by corporate operations, as well as a session on indigenous peoples’ efforts to assert their own ‘protocols and policies’ on the right to free, prior and informed consent, which translates into an obligation on states and companies to obtain the consent of indigenous peoples before commencing operations that could affect them.
  • Much attention was given to supply chain labor rights violations related to multinational company sourcing (agricultural products, minerals, electronic components, apparel and so forth) primarily from developing countries. This is evidence of the solid consensus, reinforced by the uptake of the UNGPs, that companies have a responsibility to prevent, mitigate and account for human rights impacts not only of their own operations but also those of their business relationships (including, for example, major suppliers). A number of sessions I attended were useful in that they took a systemic look at supply chain issues: learning from past initiatives in addressing widespread rights violations in supply chains, shining a light on government regulatory weaknesses and absence of political will, digging into the root causes of persistent worker rights violations, such as sourcing companies’ own practices (e.g. use of labor brokers, or failure to do due diligence beyond conditions in their closest tier of suppliers). 
  • One of the buzzes at the Forum this year was the increased presence of investors (this is anecdotal for now, as the breakdown of participant backgrounds is not available at this point). There seemed to be more talk than in the past about the role of investors in holding companies accountable and the responsibility of investors themselves to do due diligence on their investee companies’ human rights performance. This is to be welcomed, though one can question why it’s taken six years to get to this point.
  • The most useful sessions, in my view, were the ones that included candid discussion of human rights problems in the field from the perspective of both companies and rights-holders or their advocates. A common refrain at the Forum was one that is not new: companies often present a relentlessly positive account of their human rights performance, even when abuses with which they are associated are widely known. Some of the sessions I found most enlightening were those in which a company was specifically tasked with talking about not just successes but also “challenges” (a broad term that could in theory cover failures, though that particular word was not used in any of the sessions I attended). And the most credible discussions were ones in which a corroborating account or critique of the company’s activity or performance was provided by an external stakeholder such as an academic researcher, a trade union member or an NGO representative who had worked closely on the issues being presented by the company.

On a logistical note, the sheer number of sessions (well over 100, counting “snapshots” and evening events) was overwhelming, and where panels had six or more speakers, this often left little time for presenters to say much of substance. To be fair to the organizers, this was probably the result of an effort to give air time to as many presenters as possible. This is surely a reflection of the exponential growth of BHR as a field. That level of interest and work is encouraging, and the buzz of initiatives, scholarship and networking at the Forum can be exhilarating (when it’s not exhausting). As BHR expands, the Forum is likely to grow along with it. Ultimately, though, the Forum needs to keep a sharp focus on the mechanisms for remedying the   human rights abuses for which businesses are directly or indirectly responsible.

Elizabeth Umlas is a Senior Fellow at Croatan Institute