Human Rights Day 2019: BSR Reflections on the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

Dec 10, 2019 10:00 AM ET

By: Francesca Manta, Manager; Aude Ucla, Manager; Céline da Graça Pires, Associate; Jenny Vaughan, Human Rights Director (BSR)

Under the theme "Time to Act: Governments as Catalysts for Business Respect for Human Rights," the eighth annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights brought together over 2,000 representatives of companies, civil society, and states in Geneva in the final week of November to discuss best practices and emerging issues in business and human rights. BSR attended the event both to share our learnings from working with leading companies on business and human rights over the course of the year and to keep our finger on the pulse of the latest trends.

As we look ahead to 2020—and to the dawn of this decisive decade when the decisions we make as a society on how to address economic inequality, climate change, technological innovation, and political polarization will shape our shared future for generations to come—what are the pivotal human rights issues that businesses should be paying attention to? Here’s what we heard at the Forum:

States and regulators are responding to the call to action to protect human rights through mandatory due diligence and increased regulation.

A crucial discussion throughout the Forum highlighted the role of states and regional regulators to take on their duty to protect human rights and close the gap in implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), as Pillar One, the state duty to protect human rights, remains the true catalyst to realize corporate respect beyond voluntary measures.

Mandatory due diligence in national legislation is gaining ground, with the latest laws being enacted in France, the Netherlands, and Australia and with more legislation proposed. What’s more, mandatory frameworks are only expected to increase. Comments by the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the OECD all stressed the importance of policy coherence at the state and regional levels. Regional bodies such as the EU and the African Union—which will soon be publishing its first human rights and business policy—are playing a growing role in creating a level playing field and strong systems for human rights protection and business accountability. Similarly, trade investmentspublic procurement practices, and state involvement in investments such as mega-sporting events must integrate human rights due diligence in project screening as well as regulatory measures to ensure law and trade agreements include respect for human rights. With interventions by states from all over the globe, notable leadership was taken by northern European countries Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland, reflecting the region’s long-standing commitment to sustainable development and human rights.

Translating businesses’ numerous commitments to gender equality will require practical action.

Equality and inclusion must be prominent enablers in realizing the UNGPs.

The world is facing a profound inequality crisis as the divide between low- and high-income groups continues to deepen and discrimination remains a burden to the realization of human rights, especially for vulnerable groups. Creating and fostering equal and inclusive societies was the theme of many sessions, with emphasis on equal workplaces and supply chains.

BSR was represented on two panels, the first on the role of the private sector in protecting LGBTI rights and the second on applying a gender lens to the UNGPs in practice. According to the panel facilitated by Dan Bross, Executive Director of the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality (PGLE), commitment to implementing the UN Standards of Business Conduct must be a priority of business, and joint action to decriminalize sexual orientation will be central to creating inclusive workplaces and enabling regulatory environments.

Similarly, we are at a point where translating businesses’ numerous commitments to gender equality will require practical action. BSR Manager Francesca Manta’s contribution to the panel on gender and the UNGPs stressed the importance of ensuring gender-specific impacts and issues are made visible and taken into account by using a new framework for context analysis and data collection in global supply chains. Diversity and Inclusion policies and commitments to the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) as well as to the UNGPs may remain a paper exercise if differentiated impacts are not identified, monitored, and acted upon, using operational tools such as the Gender Impact and Data tool (GDI), which BSR developed for supply chain due diligence. It is time for due diligence to stop being gender-blind and make women visible and counted.

In an increasingly fragile world characterized by rising violence, closing civic space, and more authoritarian governance, business has a critical role to play in preventing corrupt practices and human rights violations. 

Addressing corruption and conflict must become a priority of business and states if we are to realize a future of peace and stability.

In line with this year’s theme, the Forum had numerous sessions on the linkages between corruption, conflict, and human rights and the role both states and companies must play to eradicate unethical practices and resolve regional and global conflicts.

Whispered already as the theme of next year’s Forum, corruption took center stage with discussions ranging from the integration of compliance and human rights due diligence processes to holistic approaches to context analysis such as the one at the session facilitated by the UN Global Compact networks. Corruption is often seen as a ‘victimless crime,’ and the panels urged participants to recognize corruption as a strong contributor to human rights abuses. In an increasingly fragile world characterized by rising violence, closing civic space, and more authoritarian governance, business has a critical role to play in preventing corrupt practices and human rights violations. The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights is currently working on the connection between anti-corruption efforts and implementation of the UNGPs to inform its 2020 report to the UN Human Rights Council. In conflict-affected and high-risk areas, part of business’s responsibility to respect human rights involves actively combating corruption by integrating their anti-corruption and human rights efforts. Companies cannot successfully respect human rights without also addressing issues of corruption in the environment where they operate and that impact their supply chain.

The digital sphere is now indivisible from human rights impacts.

In a world where nearly every company can be considered a technology company, another important theme at the Forum was how human rights are affected by digital activities and what due diligence will mean in this sphere regardless of industry. Discussions spanned from the use of AI and biometrics in high-risk sectors such as defense and surveillance, to what accountability, attribution, and remedy look like in case of adverse impacts from digital activities, to how even digital marketing has far-reaching impacts on organized crime and online and offline hate crimes, and also explored how due diligence is key to ensuring ethical advertising by any brand. Every company should seek to understand the nature of its digital activities—data collection and processing, content management, advertising—and prioritize due diligence to understand human rights impacts from both intended and unintended misuse of their technology or digital activity. States, particularly those in Europe thanks to GDPR, are more and more involved in corporate dialogue and regulations in this sphere, including interesting initiatives such as the Tech Ambassador, which was instituted by Denmark to promote diplomatic activities with technology companies.

Climate is the biggest business and human rights issue of our time, and aggressive emission reductions by both states and businesses should be a core human rights demand.

Climate is our biggest challenge and will have profound human rights implications.

Another theme throughout the three days, the Forum stressed how the climate crisis is now inextricably linked to the current and upcoming human rights impacts—on human life, inequality, health, access to livelihoods, migration. The Forum concluded with a powerful final session on the theme where a unanimous panel agreed that climate is the biggest business and human rights issue of our time and aggressive emission reductions by both states and businesses should be a core human rights demand. There are indeed positive developments and companies that are truly transitioning to fossil-free business models, such as the panelist Scania, but the pace is still too slow to keep emissions under control, particularly in light of the newly published UNEP Emission Gap Report 2019 which predicts increase in temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius. Again, policy coherence was called upon to urge states and businesses to be true to their commitment to the Paris Agreement and act immediately to address climate change in how they operate and our growth models.

We believe these key themes will take even more prominence as we enter the decisive decade next year, and we look forward to working with our members and partners to accelerate change and contribute to a just and sustainable future. To learn more about our work on human rights, please don’t hesitate to reach out and connect with our team.

Originally appeared on BSR