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While we’ve seen steady if uncertain progress on human rights — and more from business than from governments — there are dangers if the message heard by business is one of complacency.
The first day of this year’s UN Annual Forum on Business and Human
launched under its banner theme of “Time to Act,” with specific focus this year
on governments doing more.
Partly this is a recognition that businesses have done more than governments to
implement the UN Guiding
eight years since they were agreed.
Partly, it is the familiar call for mandatory rules on business and human
rights, on which there is much talk at the Forum of the new impetus towards
mandatory due diligence legislation amongst European countries, and the momentum
behind anti-slavery legislation in several countries worldwide; as well as the
continuing discussions in Geneva itself on a new, binding treaty on business
and human rights — which is making steady if uncertain progress.
Of course, there are dangers if the message heard by business is either one of
complacency or the opposite, which simply provokes a retreat back to the old,
polarised battle between voluntary and mandatory approaches.
Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, echoed
the core concept of a “smart mix” between the two championed in the Guiding
Principles, when she told companies present: “Doing the right thing is also the
smart thing to do.”
But what does that mean in practice for businesses and to sustainable business,
according to the debates in Geneva?
First, leadership. The Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human
Rights, Elżbieta Karska, used her intervention to praise companies who saw
the business benefits in speaking out for new legislation, describing them as
‘ahead of the curve’. Jaren Dunning, Director of Human Rights at
PepsiCo, said US companies are
watching European developments as they will impact on their global operations;
and saw merit in the new laws as a way of mitigating risk to the company from
within its supply
Second, multi-stakeholder initiatives have multiplied on the business and human
rights agenda in many countries — a new national platform was announced from
Sweden in their speech here today. Karska called for businesses to engage
constructively in such multi-stakeholder initiatives to create a ‘common vision’
going forward. Director of the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights
Catie Shavin talked about the “significant common ground between civil
society and business ... taking the opportunity to bring a ‘shared ask’ to
Third, governmental strategies for implementing the Guiding Principles in the
form of “national action plans” also continue to multiply. What appears to be
different this year is the number starting to come from the Global South —
Thailand and Kenya being the latest examples. For companies being
challenged to address their human rights impacts throughout their value chains,
but who sometimes find it difficult to know where to start, these new plans
provide a locus for local subsidiaries or suppliers to begin to engage in local
Fourth, business sensibly always supports any regulation being evidence-based,
and there is now a huge opportunity for business to contribute the findings from
its own experience of applying the Guiding Principles to shape current
developments. The key session here, organised by the Shift Project advisory
group, called this “Identifying evidence of what works.” Deputy Director-General
for Energy and Climate Policy Michaela Spaeth explained to the Forum how the
German Government is undertaking a formal data research exercise as part of
assessing whether a new due diligence law is brought forward in 2020. Companies
shouldn’t wait whether there or anywhere else, to submit their evidence.
Fifth, a refrain here in Geneva from throughout all the years in which the
Guiding Principles were developed is the need for policy coherence from
governments in implementing their human rights obligations — especially in
policy instruments for trade promotion, company law and public procurement. The
UN Working Group highlighted it again in its 2019
For sustainability professionals, it is a timely reminder of the continuing need
to integrate sustainability with public affairs, investor relations and
compliance functions, to ensure that this policy coherence applies within the
Finally, today’s first day of the Forum saw the launch of a new report on the
gender dimension to implementing the Guiding
recognising the extra discrimination against women and girls inherent in many
human rights abuses committed. It came as the Forum itself was opened by an
all-woman speaker panel, and where Swedish Trade Minister Anna Hallberg
proudly proclaimed: “I represent a feminist government.”
Who says nothing’s changing?
Published Nov 26, 2019 10am EST / 7am PST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CET
Richard Howitt is a strategic adviser on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Business and Human Rights. He is also a Board member, lecturer at Audencia Business School and host of the Frank Bold ‘Frankly Speaking’ responsible business podcast. Richard was Member of the European Parliament responsible for the EU’s first rules on corporate sustainability reporting and subsequently Chief Executive Officer of the International Integrated Reporting Council.