Second Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

I’ve just returned from Geneva, where I had the pleasure of attending this unmissable event in the business and human rights calendar. For in-depth coverage on the various panel sessions and side events, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has a stellar portal, available here.

It’s always difficult to summarise such a large and comprehensive event as this, but I wanted to record my basic thoughts while they’re fresh in the hope that they may contribute to the dialogue. First and foremost, I found it incredibly inspiring to be in the company of the many dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable individuals tirelessly pushing the business and human rights agenda. It is easy to forget when in their company that we are still in many ways fighting an uphill battle, principally because their enthusiasm is so contagious and their intellect so impressive that one gets swept along by the sheer energy of it all. There were familiar faces as well as new voices, and the collective force of the 1700 persons in attendance over the last three days showcased the dynamism of this field. 

All of this comes from the bias of a believer, of course. By contrast, had I been in attendance in the capacity of a business manager seeking guidance as to how to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, I may have felt the conference came up a bit short. Not that this is strictly the purpose of such an event; after all, companies need individually-tailored guidance on how to embed human rights, and an entire industry (of which I am a part) has sprung up to offer such services. Nonetheless, hours of theoretical and principled discussion with very little reference to real world applications can feel limited when the space for meaningful dialogue is so apparent.

This would be less of a concern if I didn’t feel that many companies are missing the boat. When actual examples of corporate implementation of the Guiding Principles were shared, they appeared to be rooted in measurable metrics and business-speak, with very little appreciation of the ‘human’ aspect of human rights. Much though I admire John Ruggie’s Human Rights Due Diligence approach, there is concern amongst civil society that its fatal flaw is in encouraging companies to approach human rights as a business risk to be evaluated rather than a meaningful responsibility to be upheld. This can have the effect of prioritising some rights at the expense of others, counter to the accepted status of human rights as indivisible and universal. 

All that being said, it is notable how far we’ve come since the early days of anti-apartheid divestment and sweatshop awareness. We now have sizeable international resources dedicated to the issue of business and human rights in the form of the Working Group, and a dynamic community dedicated to supporting the Guiding Principles and other initiatives. The Forum galvanised for me the privilege of working in such a fascinating field, and I look forward to participating in its development. 

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