Closing the 2017 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights blog series – and looking ahead
In our role of guiding and chairing the sixth annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights (27-29 November 2017), we were encouraged to see that interest in the business and human rights agenda continues to grow. We saw an unprecedented number of people – representing governments, national human rights institutions, businesses, civil society, trade unions, human rights defenders, lawyers and academia – engaging in a constructive dialogue on how to move forward in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The 2017 Forum was attended by more than 2,500 participants from 130 countries (55 % women; and with 10 % government representatives, 26 % private sector, 35 % NGOs, as well as other stakeholder groups). We also noted that the annual Forum has become an occasion for all stakeholders to announce new initiatives and commitments, facilitating positive competition to advance business respect for human rights.
We were also pleased to see the interest in, and rich contributions to, the 2017 Forum blog series. We believe it helped inform the dialogue and shed insights on ways forward in moving the UNGPs from paper to practice. In line with the main theme of the 2017 Forum, “Realizing Access to Effective Remedy”, blog contributions addressed various aspects of the third pillar of the UNGPs.*
Later this year, we intend to launch a similar platform for dialogue to feed into the 2018 Forum, which will be held in Geneva from 26 to 28 November.
We will also present an overview of key messages and action points from the 2017 Forum to the UN Human Rights Council. The Forum report will be published on the Forum web page in March/April and be presented to the Human Rights Council at its 38th session in June 2018. In the meantime, we would like to highlight some of our key observations made at the closing of the 2017 Forum. Going forward, we identified the following elements for a “2020 roadmap”:
- Making a commitment to implementing the UNGPs is an initial critical step. However, this in itself will not suffice. Concrete short- and long-term actions must be taken to apply the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework to prevent and address human rights abuse.
- All States should develop National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights, through inclusive processes that involve both business and civil society and with a focus on the word “action”. In this regard, the Working Group also notes the need to improve existing NAPs during the review process, especially when it comes to the third pillar.
- When it comes to providing effective remedies to victims of business-related human rights abuses, the time for talking is over. Existing barriers impeding access to effective remedies are well known, and States must work together to take urgent steps to remove those barriers.**
- Sensitivity should be shown towards the diverse experiences of all rights holders. No one should be discriminated or excluded on grounds such as race, colour, ethnicity, social origin, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, disability or migration status.
- There must be a change in mindsets from a “race to the bottom” to “races to the top” in injecting human rights into the DNA of businesses and of States’ economic policy frameworks. This includes the area of “economic diplomacy” tools, which will be the focus of the Working Group’s annual report to the Human Rights Council in June 2018). States should lead from the front in creating a regulatory framework which ensures that all businesses prevent, mitigate and remedy adverse human rights impacts of their global footprint.
- States should not see human rights as an avoidable “speed breaker” to economic development. Rather, human rights should be treated as essential pre-conditions for sustainable development, in line with the pledges States made in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Threats to human rights and environmental sustainability related to economic inequalities and climate change should be a matter of urgent concern for States and businesses alike. Transformative changes are needed to address these challenges.
- Tax evasion or avoidance by business enterprises is another issue that requires collective attention of States. It should not be forgotten that the evasion or avoidance of tax payment undermines States’ ability to mobilize resources to realize human rights.
- Discrimination and sexual violence against women must be addressed by both States and businesses as a matter of priority. The Working Group will be developing guidance for States and businesses on how to integrate a gender lens in implementing the UNGPs.
- Individuals and communities, including indigenous peoples, have a right to speak up when business operations are affecting them negatively. During the Forum we heard that the situation on the ground across the world is deteriorating for defenders. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that more businesses are taking steps to respect defenders and speak up when rights of defenders and civic freedoms are under threat, for example, in relation to LGBTI people*** and in countering anti-migration narratives. The Working Group is currently developing guidance to unpack the role of business in respecting human rights defenders and civic space.
- Business associations should continue to build capacity of their members in conducting meaningful human rights due diligence. They should also clearly communicate the expectation that that any “private” corporate lobbying with governments does not undermine their “public” commitment to the UNGPs.
- Lawyers too have a vital role in implementing the UNGPs: their professional advice to businesses should not cause or contribute to adverse human rights impacts. Lawyers should also take a pro-active role in helping affected individual and communities in seeking access to a full range of effective remedies. During the Forum, the Working Group therefore initiated discussions about establishing a global network of pro bono lawyers.
- Emerging good practice approaches for corporate human rights due diligence should be built on and scaled up across all regions – an issue which will be the focus of the Working Group’s report to the UN General Assembly in October 2018.
We will continue to facilitate dialogue amongst States, business and civil society to move forward the business and human rights agenda, including at the 2018 Forum in Geneva on 26 to 28 November. As in previous years, we have been seeking input from stakeholders on the themes and topics for the next Forum, and later in the year (around March/April) we will launch the process for proposing concrete sessions for the 2018 Forum programme.
We look forward to continuing the dialogue – and working together to advance “protect, respect, remedy” as a key foundation of global efforts toward a sustainable future for all.
Background information: The Forum was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 “to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights, including challenges faced in particular sectors, operational environments or in relation to specific rights or groups, as well as identifying good practices” (resolution 17/4, paragraph 12). The Forum is guided and chaired by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and organized by its Secretariat at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). For questions about the Forum, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @WGBizHRs
* A full overview is available here. The Working Group is grateful to the Business and Human Rights Journal and Cambridge University Press for their support in hosting the blog series. The Working Group is also grateful to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre for its support in cross-posting and disseminating the Forum blog. Disclaimer: The blog platform is not an official UN Forum platform, and the UN Forum organizers take no responsibility for viewpoints expressed in the blog contributions. Publication of blog contributions does not entail endorsement of the authors or the viewpoints expressed.
** See amongst others, Working Group’s 2017 report to the General Assembly focusing on access to effective remedies under the UNGPs, as well as OHCHR 2016 report on improving accountability and access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuse.
*** See also OHCHR publication “Standards of Conduct for Tackling Discrimination against LGBTI people” launched in September 2017.