The 2019 UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights – What Did I Miss?

Anna Triponel | 19 December 2019

Every November since the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were endorsed, governments, companies, investors, community groups, civil society, trade unions, law firms, national human rights institutions and academia come together at the UN in Geneva to discuss business and human rights.

We discuss the state of play, the latest trends and developments, and where the field is going. It is the opportunity for us to press ‘pause’ on this rapidly evolving field to reflect on where it is going. Several companies I work with were unable to attend and have asked for my top takeaways from this gathering. So here goes.

1. There is now a major push for more laws requiring companies to conduct environmental and human rights due diligence

The primary focus of the UN Annual Forum this year was the ‘smart mix’ of measures needed under the UNGPs to meet the state duty to protect human rights in practice. We are witnessing a clear shift in this discussion. This was the first time that stakeholders from a wide range of backgrounds (including the private sector) made clear that more mandatory state measures are needed, alongside voluntary measures, and that both national and international state measures need to work together. In Shift’s words, “[a]s engagement increases, the discussion is starting to move beyond whether these measures are necessary, towards what shape regulation can take to be most effective in fostering rights-respecting business practice.”

This was evidenced throughout the three days, with governments taking positions related to the need for legislation, and companies calling for a level playing field and legal certainty. We have already seen this play out since the Forum, with Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU calling for “a review of the available evidence of the effectiveness of different voluntary and mandatory measures on responsible business conduct at the level of Member States and the EU” which would be “used to provide information for legislative measures.” We have also seen a number of companies since the Forum call upon governments and the EU to pass new environmental and human rights due diligence regulation.

2. The emphasis on the development of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights (NAPs) continues, especially for governments outside of Europe and North America

We are seeing a growing number of countries outside of Europe and North America develop, adopt and implement NAPs. A NAP is defined as an “evolving policy strategy developed by a State to protect against adverse human rights impacts by business enterprises in conformity with the UNGPs.” This is an important development for companies that have supply chains where these NAPs are being discussed as they typically open the door to a range of measures, including legislation and changes to public procurement.

Much discussion at the Forum was on Thailand – the first country in Asia to adopt a NAP, with a representative from Thailand speaking of the importance of having high-level political will and strong cooperation amongst different stakeholders at various levels to ensure the success of the process. We also heard about ongoing discussions in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as countries that had (South Korea) or were considering (Nepal) inserting a chapter on business and human rights into their human rights NAP. Kenya also published its NAP this year and is the process of undergoing legislative discussions.

NAPs were also discussed at a regional level. There was a resounding call for Middle East and North Africa (MENA) governments to develop NAPs at the session I chaired on behalf of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and OHCHR, at which we also discussed the example of Morocco that has a business and human rights chapter in its human rights NAP. We are also seeing a focus on governments from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) developing NAPs, in work with the ILO, OECD and the EU.

3. The issue of the climate crisis has risen to the top, and protecting human rights defenders and other more vulnerable portions of the population continues to be paramount

  • The climate crisis: The Forum coincided this year with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) that took place under the Presidency of the Government of Chile in Spain. This year, there were clear calls for the business and human rights field and the climate and environmental field to be brought much more closely together. For companies in particular, this entails both taking rights-based climate action, as well as integrating climate considerations into human rights due diligence. In the words of Brynn O’Brien from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, “emissions reduction is a core human rights demand and every advocate in this room must start making it.”
  • Human rights defenders: Human rights defenders remained front and centre of discussions at the Forum. We saw the launch of the Zero Tolerance Initiative which brings together organisations on the frontlines who are calling “on States, businesses and investors to commit to take urgent action to turn the tide of rising levels of violence against human rights defenders.” Since the Forum, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, together with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and a group of civil society organizations, have reiterated the point, calling on states and companies to protect defenders who speak up against business impact on people and planet. We are seeing companies take some interesting actions in this space for others to consider.
  • Child labour, forced labour and human trafficking: The ILO, OECD, IOM and UNICEF launched their report on ending child labour, forced labour and human trafficking in global supply chains. Of particular note, the report calls upon business to find solutions at the local level that seek to address the root causes of socio-economic vulnerabilities that can push people into child labour, forced labour and human trafficking.
  • Gender: The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights launched its gender guidance which provides guidance to companies on how to mainstream women issues and empower women when implementing the UNGPs. The guidance also includes a vast array of statistics and data points that will help those working on this within companies make the case for attention.

Other themes discussed include the crossover between human rights and anti-bribery and corruption (ABC), the role of companies in conflict-affected areas and evaluating a company’s progress towards building a rights-respecting culture. We also discussed the future of work, human rights risks of technology, and the use of mediation in business and human rights.

With over 60 sessions organised over three days bringing delegates together from around the world, it is impossible to do justice to the wide range of topics discussed. If you have more time, you can look at the agenda and the videos, twitter feeds (e.g. #UNForumBHR, #bizhumanrights, #UNGPs, @WGBizHRs) and information compiled by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

One third of the 2,400 representatives this year were business. Consider what you can do to strengthen your approach to human rights in 2020, and come to the Forum next November to share your experience with, and learn from, others.

See you there!


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