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Time for human rights to get down to business?

Businesses, governments and civil society descended on Geneva last week for the 2014 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, the largest global gathering in the business and human rights field. There were lofty statements of high ambition but the pervasive tone and success of the Forum was more prosaic: nitty-gritty implementation.

It was a conference dedicated to developing and sharing the best practices capable of shifting businesses from showcase philanthropy to real accountability, from vague aspirations to measurable impacts, and from a race to the bottom to a competition to be recognised as world leading. It was a call for real action; as one panel moderator told his coffee-clutching audience early on Day 3: “I want to see dust on everybody’s shoes”.

Implementation of what? 

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were designed to implement the UN’s Protect, Respect and Remedy framework and to address the governance gaps left by inadequate action by states and the increased reach and impact of corporations. The Forum, now in its third year, was established by the UN Human Rights Council as a global platform for stakeholders to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of these Guiding Principles.

And there was no shortage of discussions. Over 60 separate sessions, jam-packed with keynote and panel speakers, were crammed into an ambitious official programme, not counting side events and private meetings. More comprehensive reports will no doubt follow; my more limited aim here is to give you a flavour of the key developments and mood of the conference.

Recognising business leaders

The number of businesses at the Forum was up on both previous years, adding to the sense that this is a movement gaining momentum. Naturally, the sample of businesses present was self-selected and so unlikely to be representative of the broader corporate sector. But a movement needs pioneers and these leaders should be recognised when they step forward and tell of real change at the coal face, literally and figuratively.

While the Forum saw many important contributions from various business leaders, there was undoubtedly a flag-bearer for proactive business engagement in the human rights field. Unilever CEO Paul Polman declared in his keynote address that business can only flourish in societies where human rights are respected, and that companies not willing to make the changes this requires will soon find out there is nowhere to hide. The broad consensus was that these were words supported by action; Unilever was widely praised for its root and branch embedding of human rights and environmental protections throughout the company and its extended ‘value chain’.


A less tangible but similarly encouraging sign of this recognition was a markedly – almost surprisingly – collaborative atmosphere. Businesses shared their experiences and affirmed the Guiding Principles as a useful framework for making sense of the jungle of laws, norms and guidance they face, as well as clarifying the respective responsibilities of states and corporations. Amidst repeated talk of genuine multi-stakeholder engagement, corporates and civil society shared a panel to report on joint projects (for example: Oxfam and ICI collaborating on the Nestlé Cocoa Plan, Human Rights Watch assisting Vale regarding women’s rights in Mozambique, and IndustriALL Global Union partnering with Inditex on the issue of labour rights). John Ruggie, author of the Guiding Principles, gave me his assessment: “The quality of the discussion is at a higher level than last year and is less confrontational. We have moved on from ‘Business and Human Rights 101’ toward practical implementation.”

That is not to say corporates were not challenged by charities, NGOs and other not-for-profits. There were pointed calls for far more multinational corporations to join the discussions and warnings that in many areas conditions are actually deteriorating; the treatment of human rights defenders in some parts of the world, for example, was singled out as increasingly problematic.

Practical tools

And so to the nitty-gritty: how can corporates implement the Guiding Principles and how should civil society assist businesses while also holding them to account? Various tools were presented and new initiatives trailed.

Against a backdrop of the EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive, to be implemented by large companies in the EU by December 2016, Shift explained its new Reporting and Assurance Frameworks Initiative (RAFI), which promises to set a new common standard in human rights reporting.

On a panel dedicated to the development of comparable metrics, Oxfam presented the October update of its Behind the Brands company scorecard, flanked by initiatives measuring corporate impact on access to medicines and digital rights online – the common objective: to promote competition to top a league table of corporate good practice on human rights. Watch out, too, for the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, an ambitious initiative launched last week to create a publicly accessible and respected hub for ranking the human rights performance of at least 500 major companies across various industries.

And there was plenty more not covered in this brief summary, including discussion about role and development of states’ “National Action Plans” on business and human rights, initiatives specific to the finance and private security sectors, the Human Rights Council’s explorations into a binding treaty on business and human rights, and discussions on a possible arbitration tribunal dedicated to this field.

What’s next?

The real test of the success or otherwise of the Forum can only truly be assessed over the coming months. Words, though seemingly well intentioned and promising, must be converted to systematic changes and a new standard of business as usual. Rajiv Joshi of the B-Team told the Forum that there is a clear business and moral case for such a step change.

As the dust settles after the Forum, and is amassed on the delegates’ shoes during the hard graft of implementation, we would all do well to remember these words from Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke’s keynote address: “Lots of good talk, but human rights is about action on the ground”.

Adam Smith-Anthony is a senior associate at Omnia Strategy LLP


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