We signed up for the 2017 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights with some trepidation because of its chosen theme of “Realizing Access to Effective Remedy”. This is the third pillar in the UN Guiding Principles, supplementing the guidance on state duty to protect human rights (the first pillar) and on the business responsibility to respect human rights (the second pillar). The third pillar, recognizing the importance of having effective remedies to human rights violations, has been deemed the weakest pillar but one that seemed to evoke the most complaints in past forums. Much to our surprise, the 2017 Forum and its thematic focus went more smoothly- and more constructively – than we had expected. Read more here.
Strengthening the Remedies Pillar at the State Level
This is the sixth annual forum for the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, announcing a record turnout of some 2500 participants. While there were still the occasional outbursts of applause for confrontational rhetoric, we found the overall atmosphere conducive to a collaborative approach to strengthening the variety of remediation and grievance mechanisms that have been put into place, thanks in large part to the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the multi-year Accountability and Remedy Project. This has provided case studies and guidance materials for domestic law remedies, both judicial and non-judicial.
We learned a lot about the progress in establishing National Action Plans for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There were several sessions on how these were being made operational. We also enjoyed the launch of a new website and updated toolkit developed and maintained by the Danish Institute for Human Rights with detailed and comparative information on NAPs by country, by issue and by Guiding Principles. There were interesting sessions as well on community-based initiatives and on the role of digital technology on empowering human rights defenders. Another topic of interest related to new reporting requirements, including the French “duty of vigilance” law but also the new reporting requirement announced by the European Union that will go into effect in 2018. It adds environmental, social and employee-related aspects to the financial reporting requirements for companies operating inside and out from the EU. See the EU statement for the Forum here.
Strengthening the Accountability of Business through Non-State Initiatives
The Forum also provided opportunities for stock-taking and lesson-sharing on non-state-based remediation and grievance mechanisms, especially with sectoral industry bodies and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Sessions were mostly organized around series of cooperating panels and sponsors, which was effective in bringing multiple organizing groups together. Both OHCHR and the Working Group convened many of the sessions, but there were many different government ministries, law firms, advocacy groups, and even a healthy array of business groups. The Forum also was the occasion for the launching of – or at least publicizing of several multi-stakeholder initiatives. The Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment is an example here, mobilizing action to remove labour fees with the likes of IKEA, Apple and HP among the steering committee members. Another example is the Responsible Business Alliance that is combining a new Responsible Labor Initiative with Apple, Coca-Cola, HP, Intel, Wal-Mart and Target among the supporters with another Responsible Minerals Initiative with over 350 members, including Boeing, Intel, JC Penney, Best Buy, Deutsche Telecom and Ford.
New Directions for the Working Group
In the closing session, we heard about the 2020 Road Map for the Working Group. This includes action on remedies, especially facilitating more effective remedies within the National Action Plans. More community engagement also needs guidance and a change in the mind set of both business and government regarding regulatory frameworks. Tax evasion by business was also mentioned. Two immediate initiatives for the Working Group also benefited from full-day consultations after the Forum – one on developing a gender lens for the UN Guiding Principles and another on preparing guidance for business to respect human rights defenders. We attended a portion of the former consultation where the dynamic dialogue stirred debate on the challenges of cultural change and the structural nature of inequality in the application of a gender lens. See the Closing Statement by Surya Deva, the current Chairperson of the Working Group here.
A Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights
We add one observation here about an event that was not part of the Forum but perhaps should have been. This was the holding of the second annual “Sporting Chance Forum” in Geneva from 30 November to 2 December 2017. We only came across this event (since we aren’t exactly active in any team sports – just walking, jogging, swimming and other individual sports) when we did a search for Mary Robinson. As a former High Commissioner for Human Rights, we wondered why she had not been on the Forum’s programme.
In fact, very few “celebrities” were on the Forum’s programme this year – except for Sir Mark Moody Stuart from the UN Global Compact Board. And there she showed up in a report on the Internet from the Institute for Business and Human Rights (where Ms. Robinson is listed as a Patron), describing this second annual Sporting Chance Forum that was held immediately after the Forum that we had attended in Geneva. She was in fact identified as the Chair of a new “Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights”. This new MSE Platform, we learned, is backed by a diverse coalition, including FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the Commonwealth Games Federation and UEFA. The ILO, UNICEF, OHCHR and OECD are also on the Steering Committee – as are Adidas Group, BT plc, The Coca Cola Company and the International Organization of Employers as private sector representatives, and the Building and Wood Workers International, International Trade Union Confederation and World Players Association for the trade union side of things. Then there are several civil society groups as well, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International Germany.