Notes from the field: The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights 2017

“Human rights are not optional norms” stated Professor Surya Deva, the Chairperson of the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations, at the opening plenary at the sixth UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. The Forum took place in November 2017 at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, the home of modern human rights (and terrible sandwiches, apparently). Its mandate is to create a global platform helping academics, activists, states, and businesses to come together, share good practice, and further the discussion on the burgeoning field of business and human rights. The Forum’s main focus over the last few years has been to “move the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UNGPs) from paper to practice”. The UNGPs were launched in 2011, on the back of growing concerns that the sheer size and power of multinational corporations (MNCs) were having an increasingly negative impact on human rights. Due to to the extensive reach of many MNCs, prevention, accountability and remedy for human rights abuses are lacking. This is especially relevant within global supply chains, many of which are based in the developing world and which struggle with inadequate state infrastructure. Disasters like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, or Shell’s involvement in human rights abuse in the Niger Delta, highlight the need to provide international standards of behaviour for multinational corporations.

Aiming to bridge this gap, the UNGPs broadly encompass three Pillars: upholding states’ existing obligations to protect human rights; compliance and respect of human rights by business enterprises; and the right to effective remedy when human rights abuses occur. While not legally binding, the popularity of the UNGPs represents a shift in wider corporate discourse, with numerous MNCs integrating the Principles into their operations. This year’s Forum focused on Pillar III of the UNGPs—the right to access to remedy. Sometimes called the “forgotten pillar”, the right to access to remedy represents “one of the greatest challenges within the business and human rights agenda”, since it requires a complex and victims-based perspective that is very often overlooked. As Debbie Stothard, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said during one session in the Forum, “How do you compensate for a death of a loved one, the loss of ancestral land, or cultural identity?”.

One particular focus of the Forum this year was the need to recognise women’s rights within business and human rights issues, with an all-women opening panel and specific sessions dedicated to this issue. Women make up a significant fraction of the workforce in most industries, yet business practices and cultures continually fail to consider the needs of women and girls and how they are impacted. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), sex-based discrimination against women remains the most prevalent form of inequality in the workplace. Women workers are often situated at the bottom of corporate value chains, especially in the garment sector, and often experience unique discrimination and human rights violations. Julienne Lusenge from Women@TheTable reiterated this point during a special session on women’s access to remedy, saying that for many women their only options are to deal with workplace sexual harassment or get fired for reporting it.

Moreover, women shoulder a heavy burden from the negative effects of businesses in the communities in which they operate. One example highlighted during the Forum was the forced displacement of indigenous communities by natural resource industries in the Global South, where women are disproportionately affected. This can be bound up with the structural inequality still present in many societies. Some formal state laws and regressive social norms still see women as the property of their husbands, denying them the right to own property, and seeing their role as solely familial. These structural inequalities prevent women from redressing grievances and deny them the chance for their voice to be heard. For businesses, this can represent an opportunity to give back to communities, by advocating for women’s rights and supporting positive change within society.

Another important issue that emerged during the Forum was the impact of technology on business and human rights. A number of MNCs are investing in new technology to better understand human rights issues in their global supply chains. Nevertheless, disruptive technology such as large-scale automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are set to completely transform work as we know it, so it is vital to understand the implications for workers’ rights. In a session aptly named “Remedy Against the Machine”, examples of this new technology were discussed, with examples including the ‘Sewbot system’, capable of making 1.2 million t-shirts a year, outstripping its human counterparts. With this automation comes job displacement, especially in low-cost export economies like Bangladesh, and the potential for human rights abuse. Another facet of this new technology concerns the huge amounts of data collected for AI, and the increasing influence this will have on our day-to-day lives. This, as Steven Crown, Microsoft’s Vice President stated, “requires businesses to reflect on new ways of thinking about privacy”.

After the hectic schedule of the Forum, the closing plenary was an opportunity to reflect upon the achievements and hindrances of the previous three days. The voices of indigenous communities from around the world shared stories and lessons from their experiences, and asked the Forum participants to work towards the elimination of human rights abuses that they had faced at the hands of MNCs. There was also a diverse range of businesses, keen to engage and present their human rights accomplishments. However, state representation was noticeably lacking in many of the sessions. This is an unfortunate oversight on the part of countries, given that under international human rights law (and under the UNGPs themselves) it is states that are charged with the primary duty to protect human rights. The prospect of a binding treaty on business and human rights also loomed over the Forum, with Professor Deva launching his book on ways to build this treaty. It remains to be seen how this is developed both over the next few years and during the 2018 Forum. With all these complex issues, it is imperative to remember what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in his address to the closing plenary: “No-one will remember us for our silence, nor respect us for it”.

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