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 Rights 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 Principles, 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 chain.
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 governments.”
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 markets.
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 Report. 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 company, too.
Finally, today’s first day of the Forum saw the launch of a new report on the gender dimension to implementing the Guiding Principles, 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?