Fifth Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

It’s that time of year again – the business and human rights community’s annual pilgrimage to the Palais des Nations in Geneva. What happens in those hallowed halls? Reports were launched, ideas were shared, and connections were made – but what meaningful progress can we speak about now, five years on from the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles by the Human Rights Council?

Despite the feeling of business as usual – same faces, same buzzwords, same surroundings – it turns out that there is much progress to be celebrated this year. 2016, for all of its disappointments, has seen the development of the business and human rights agenda from the delicate chrysalis of perceived competing interests into a full-grown, show-stealing butterfly of the international agenda. The ease with which corporate panelists addressed issues as diverse as the Sustainable Development Goals and community-based grievance mechanisms signalled a sea-change from the early days of building delicate bridges between business and civil society. Among the remarks echoing through the assembly hall was that making the “business case” for human rights due diligence in a company is now seen as dirty work; corporates are expected to rise to human rights challenges irrespective of their impact on the bottom line. Judging by this year’s Forum, the discourse has evolved such that we now clearly expect companies to have sophisticated processes in place to manage and report on human rights. The conversation is no longer about why, but more about how.

To what do we owe this transformation? Yes, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but bedfellows as strange as CEOs and indigenous leaders don’t come together by chance. We ought to give credit where credit is due for the increasing ubiquity of business and human rights: a wave of national legislation compelling businesses to get on board. We can wax lyrical about the value of soft law, but those of us with experience running companies know that nothing promotes change quite like mandatory regulation.

While the trend toward hard law mandating that companies to engage with human rights has been bubbling under the surface for some time, 2016 has seen a wave of new laws come into force that have really driven the discourse forward. The UK Modern Slavery Act, enacted last year, has now resulted in the first tranche of company statements on slavery and trafficking being released and scrutinised. The EU Conflict Minerals Regulation, which will require due diligence for mineral importers, is due to be approved by the European Parliament before the end of the year. The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, which aims to establish a mandatory due diligence process for Swiss-based companies in all their operations abroad, was officially submitted in October 2016.  And in France, the Bill on duty of care for parent and subsidiary companies was adopted by the Senate in October.

Though many of these laws emanate from European countries, this trend extends to the developing world as well. The Indian Model Bilateral Investment Treaty urges Parties to voluntarily incorporate internationally recognised standards of corporate social responsibility in their practices and internal policies. Further, India’s CSR law has brought human rights into board rooms across the country by requiring businesses with annual revenues of more than 10bn rupees to give away 2% of their net profit to charity. This will be an area to watch as other developing economies explore innovative ways of promoting responsible investment and sustainable development.

So what’s the takeaway? First, it’s a good time to be a human rights lawyer. Emerging laws and regulations mean that companies need robust legal advice, including specialist advice on human rights. Second, with recent global events seeming to indicate that the world could be moving away from multilateralism, this trend foresees the corporate world firmly invested in collaboration to address international issues. Third, it shows government leadership on business and human rights issues, which we hope will continue to mature to incorporate substantive considerations in addition to reporting requirements. Business as usual at the Forum, then – witnessing progress on a global scale in the grand venue where it all began.

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