The 2020 UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights – What Did I Miss?

Anna Triponel and Maddie Wolberg | 19 November 2020

2020 marks the ninth anniversary of the UN Human Rights Council’s adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as the ninth UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. The Forum is an opportunity for governments, companies, investors, community groups, civil society, trade unions, law firms, national human rights institutions and academia to come together and discuss trends, challenges, opportunities, and the future of business and human rights. 

The theme of this year’s Forum was “Preventing business-related human rights abuses: The key to a sustainable future for people and planet.” 

This year, the Forum was marked by a noticeable difference: for the first time ever, it took place entirely online in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel setting was less than ideal in some ways (it’s always a challenge to generate fluid conversation when everyone is on their computers thousands of miles apart!) but it also came with some unexpected silver linings—for example, many human rights defenders and community activists from all over the world were able to participate in the Forum for the first time. COVID-19 was, unsurprisingly, a major theme of many of the conversations – as was the climate crisis, and growing xenophobia and racism. Here are a few of the things we took away from the Forum this year.

1. Nearly everyone—from governments to companies to civil society to trade unions—is ready to move towards the ‘compulsory’ part of the ‘smart mix’ between voluntary and mandatory measures to protect and respect human rights

With this year’s theme of “prevention”—not to mention the accelerating number of legislative approaches governments are introducing to mandate human rights due diligence and disclosure over the last year—it’s not surprising that one of the key themes of the Forum was compulsory measures to enforce respect for human rights in business. The consensus among participants across all sectors and all geographies is that laws are coming, whether in the form of mandatory human rights due diligence (HRDD) legislation, the global treaty on business and human rights, or National Action Plans on business and human rights. 

Companies generally welcomed mandatory HRDD (mHRDD): multinational enterprises want consistency and policy coherence across the many jurisdictions where they operate; small and medium enterprises are looking for structure and guidance on how to effectively prioritise and integrate respect for human rights; and every business wants to level the playing field. For example, Michele Thatcher, Chief Human Rights Officer at PepsiCo, welcomed a global standard, pointing out that regulatory inconsistencies between different countries on human rights means that compliance takes a lot of time and resources. Companies seemed to agree that those resources would be better spent on meeting one set of expectations for HRDD and investing more resources in actually improving practices on the ground. 

Trade unions and civil society organisations similarly called for progress towards mHRDD, focusing on the harms caused to people when regulatory approaches lag. Ruwan Subasinghe, Legal Advisor at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said there has been “undeniable progress” on workers’ rights but we also need to “recognise the limitations of voluntary corporate social responsibility standards and flaws in the global supply chain model itself.” For unions and workers, the clear roadmap is regulatory measures “that can once and for all realign the normative asymmetry between the legally enforceable rules that protect business, and the soft law of corporate accountability.”

Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and OECD Watch, cautioned that we’re still not there on accountability for harms: right now, the “smart mix” looks more like “a junkyard of remedy.” For him, the challenge for the next ten years of the UNGPs is how to “turn that junkyard into a remedy ecosystem. We know what we need to do; now it’s just a question of political will.”

“Workers have no choice but to be hopeful. We’ve seen the equivalent of 495 million full-time jobs wiped out during the pandemic. Multilateralism has failed workers, there’s no doubt about that. But we cannot let that failure impact on our ambitious BHR agenda.” 

Ruwan Subasinghe, Legal Advisor at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

“The era of voluntary corporate virtue is over.”

Anand Giridharadas, Journalist and Author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”

2. The COVID-19 pandemic is shifting the way companies address their own human rights impacts – while demonstrating the value of having had strong HRDD systems in place before the pandemic

Unsurprisingly, the effects of COVID-19 featured prominently in discussions during the Forum. In a session on using HRDD as a tool for resilience in times of crisis, companies acknowledged that they’ve needed to change the way they conduct due diligence and address human rights impacts. Tony Khaw, Corporate Social Responsibility Director at NXP, and Shubha Sekhar, Director of Human Rights for Eurasia and North Africa at The Coca-Cola Company, both said that the pandemic has limited in-person audits so their companies are finding new ways to get visibility on the ground—ranging from strengthening and expanding existing worker voice channels, to conducting remote dialogues with workers, to piloting virtual auditing tools that can supplement other forms of due diligence. 

What’s more, having strong HRDD systems, supplier relationships and supply chain visibility in place prior to the pandemic have also been crucial for companies to navigate the challenges of COVID-19. Pascale Schuit, Sustainable Sourcing Manager for Union Hand Roasted Coffee, pointed to the specific challenges the company faces as an SME sourcing primarily from smallholder farmers across 14 different countries. Union Hand Roasted Coffee has long had HRDD practices in place and has developed strong relationships with local suppliers as a part of this. The company has focused on building trust with farmers, creating a safe environment for conversations with workers on the ground, and promoting farmer resiliency including paying a fair price and avoiding sourcing more than 50% of any farmer’s crop to limit their dependency on a single customer. These measures allowed suppliers to respond quickly and creatively to the challenges posed by the pandemic and helped Union Hand Roasted Coffee secure their supply chain. Christy Hoffmann, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, also said that there is an important role for trade unions to play during the pandemic: Unions can be the “ears and eyes of global companies” on the ground and can support HRDD as COVID-19 restricts the ability of companies to conduct in-person supplier monitoring and engagement. 

However, the pandemic has also been used as an excuse to undermine human rights protections. For example, in a separate panel, June L. Lorenzo of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, pointed out that governments are using COVID-19 as an excuse to displace indigenous peoples and repress civic space and human rights defenders. And Jackline Wanjiru of UN Environment Programme, reported on the results of an ongoing study showing that governments are rolling back environmental protections in an attempt to incentivise growth in light of the pandemic’s negative economic impacts. Diana Nabiruma, Senior Programme and Communications Officer, The Africa Institute for Energy Governance, gave the example of the East African crude oil pipeline currently under development. To protect public health, the development process was paused during the pandemic, including consultations with impacted community members. While the health protections are clearly a positive, Ms. Nabiruma said that a side effect of the project suspension is that the company has broken off all communications with communities, who are waiting for the company to provide details on compensation and as a result are unable to move forward with planting crops for the next season, risking their food security.

“It’s not the time to put on the brakes of human rights due diligence, but time to accelerate.” 

Tyler Gillard, Head of Due Diligence, OECD Responsible Business Conduct Unit

“The great lesson I would take away from the pandemic is that it exposed the relationship between human rights risks and systemic risk that can affect our portfolios and communities. The investment community has come around to this on climate change, recently we’ve seen a lot more movement …. COVID revealed a lot of weaknesses in the system that we’re all a part of and that we invest in.” 

Corey Klemmer, Director of Engagement, Domini Impact Investments LLC

3. It’s time for global agendas – on human rights, climate change, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, racism and inequality, decent work, and more – to align. The human rights framework provides both a lens and a language to integrate approaches to solving big global issues

Woven throughout all three days of the Forum was the sense that 2020 is something of an inflection point for the international community, between the COVID-19 pandemic, movements for racial and social justice, and the worsening effects of climate change. A key theme from the Forum was that we cannot continue to ignore the interlinkages between climate, racism and inequality, and human rights, nor can we afford to tackle these issues in silos. The business and human rights framework can serve as a linchpin of these different issues. 

In a panel discussion on the role of the UNGPs in addressing xenophobia and racism, Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, pointed out that for many multinational companies, domestic discrimination and racism are not thought of as human rights issues within the remit of companies to address. We’ve especially seen this in the U.S., where many companies continue to be reluctant to speak out on the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and other topics considered to be “civil rights” rather than “human rights.” Jaren Dunning, Senior Legal Director of Global Human Rights at PepsiCo, said that companies need to see civil rights as human rights and that they need to understand how these issues play out in their own companies, among their employees, their suppliers and their customers. PepsiCo is using the UNGPs and the responsibility to respect as a lens to help the company and its leadership see entrenched social racism as a human rights issue linked to business operations that it needs to address. Dominique Day, Chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, drove this point home, saying that the drivers of entrenched racism are based in a shared global history of exploitation (especially through the Transatlantic slave trade) that continues to underpin globalization and capitalism. All companies need to grapple with this legacy and work to eradicate inequality in their own business, starting by listening to the perspectives of their employees. 

Other conversations at the Forum focused on the links between climate change and human rights. To effectively address either issue, we need to break down silos between environmental issues and human rights issues, across international standards like the UNGPs, the OECD Guidelines and the Paris Agreement, and across business units within individual companies. In other words, progress on one front cannot occur without progress on the others. Marcos A. Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, said, “Climate action is necessary and it is also more legitimate and more effective when based on informed participation, inclusive solutions. The climate problem cannot be solved on the back of human rights.” All of the global community’s work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the climate crisis “must be done with a just transition and a respect for workers.”

“We have a convergence of crises. We already had massive inequality and the climate crisis. Loss of lives and livelihoods, incomes on which people could not live because our economy is so unequal, driving an age of anger and despair. Now we have COVID-19 and those fractures have become craters so we have to deal with recovery and resilience. And it will take a new social contract that covers all these areas because environment human and labor rights are entwined and with jobs climate friendly jobs and universal social protection, there must be the foundations of that new social contract.” 

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

“The truth is that climate of course is an environmental issue, but at the same time it’s a food security issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a poverty and livelihoods issue, it’s a displacement issue, it’s an access to water issue, it’s a political issue. It is, in short, an ‘everything-to-do-with-human-life’ issue.” 

Rob Cameron, Global Head of Public Affairs and Sustainability, Nestlé

Here you can find all of the transcripts and audio recordings of the sessions. And we think you’ll enjoy UN Web TV as well! Here are some direct links to videos for you: 

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