Business and Human Rights: What should the UN be doing?

A week ago today, Lacuna Magazine Published my article ‘Human rights and business: Is the UN helping?  For those who haven’t read the article, it was my reflections after attending the 2016 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva from 16-18 November. I found some amazing examples of brave and creative human rights work at the forum, but left concerned about the role being played by the United Nations.

The article has provoked some really interesting responses. Many thanks to all those who got in touch. The question that I have been asked most is: Given my concerns, what do I think the UN should be doing to help push the human rights and business agenda? Below are some brief thoughts on this. I leave aside the question of whether there should be a UN business and human rights treaty, or other new UN initiatives. For now, I just want to reflect on what the UN could do on the basis of its current flagship human rights and business initiative – the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

There are two crucial things which key UN actors* should be promoting above all else: transparency and scrutiny. And those both seem to be lacking in key aspects of the UNGPs at the moment.

First, on transparency, the biggest obligation placed on business is to conduct human rights due diligence. It is 5 years since the UNGPs came into force and we still don’t have a single company, as far as I know, willing to share its detailed HRDD methodology and results. The closest we have is companies like Nestle who have shared a report which synthesizes the findings of a small element of their HRDD process. There is no way for any independent outsider to judge who is undertaking robust meaningful HRDD processes and who is just going through the motions. And there is lots of evidence I have found to suggest that HRDD means completely different things to different companies.

What I saw at the Forum suggested financial institutions are nowhere near providing the necessary leverage to make transparency happen. And without transparency, as I have argued elsewhere, HRDD could end up being a backward step in the fight for better human rights performance by companies.

The way out of this logjam is for UN actors to start taking action to create real transparency on HRDD. Part of this may be privately coaxing companies to share their practice. But there also needs to be a high-profile public discussion about what the showing part of ‘knowing and showing’ should amount to. The 2017 Annual Forum would be a good place for this to happen. Alongside this, there could also usefully be a comparative analysis of different methodological approaches – e.g. those pioneered by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and Nomogaia. The reality is they look very different.

Second, scrutiny.  Let’s use a different example here. Many countries are now creating national action plans (NAPs) on business and human rights as a result of the UNGPs. In my article on the Forum, I described the excruciating process of sitting listening to 18 different countries waxing lyrical about the process of creating their national action plans. But there was no discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of any of them. John Ruggie told us rather cryptically that states need to do more to promote the UNGPs. But I did not hear Professor Ruggie or anyone else at the Forum elaborate in any detail on what needed to happen.

It is not sufficient to have a NAP. You need a NAP which actually does important work in promoting better human rights outcomes on the ground. I was involved in consultations over two national action plans, and it made me skeptical about what either of those would achieve in practice. What should the UN do? Encourage proper scrutiny of NAPs. At the very least, there should be a panel at the 2017 Forum where the content of NAPs are thoroughly examined and some attempt is made to identify elements of NAPs which are having significant impacts.

Writing these thoughts makes me think back to David Kennedy’s article “The Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?”. So I’ll end this post with his words which I think serve as an appropriate warning of the current dangers:

“Human rights offers itself as the measure of emancipation. This is its most striking, and misleading promise. Human rights narrates itself as a universal/eternal/human truth and as a pragmatic response to injustice – there was the holocaust and then there was the Genocide Convention, women everywhere were subject to discrimination and then there was CEDAW. This posture makes the human rights movement itself seem redemptive.. It is not surprising that human rights professionals consequently confuse work on the movement for emancipatory work in society. But there are bad consequences when people of good will mistake work on the discipline for work on the problem.”


* Which ‘UN human rights actors’ do I mean? The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights are most obvious candidates. But I think there should also be a wider sense of collective responsibility within the UN for its work in this field.

Should a poor Asian woman suffer five times the financial impact of austerity than a rich white man?

From 2011-2013 I worked with Mary-Ann Stephenson on a series of reports which investigated the human rights impacts of austerity on women in Coventry. In ‘Unravelling Inequality’, ‘Feeling the Pinch’ and ‘Layers of Inequality’ we uncovered how the combined impact of austerity policy was having a devastating impact on some women in the city. For women who were also poor, disabled  and/or from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, existing inequalities were compounded by being disproportionately hit by austerity measures.


Mary-Ann is now working at the Women’s Budget group. She was on Women’s Hour this morning talking about research WBG released today which shows how, across the whole of the UK, low income black and Asian women are paying the highest price for austerity. While the poorest Asian women will be losing more than £2,000 per year by 2020 (more than 11% of their income) as a result of austerity measures, the richest white men will be losing only £400.

As Mary-Ann pointed out on Women’s Hour “The Treasury have not carried out a proper analysis. They have not looked at how, for instance, the poorest Asian women will be affected… If you have got a government which says it wants to help those struggling most to cope, it has to find out how its own policies are affecting those people.”

The kind of analysis done by WBG needs to be widely shared, so as to help hold the government to account for talking about helping ‘just about managing’ families but not attempting to work out the effects of its policies on those who are most affected.     

Human Rights and Business: Is the United Nations Helping?

I wrote about my early impressions of the Annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights and I meant to keep writing further thoughts at the end of each day. But I failed to live up to my early promise! A week later I have had more time to think about my experiences of the Forum and have now published a piece in Lacuna Magazine entitled “Human Rights and Business: Is the United Nations Helping?”  In it, I reflect on the human rights challenges posed by global business activity, which appear even greater after recent Brexit and US election results. I talk about the inspiration I found at the Forum in the work of dedicated individuals fighting bravely and creatively for change. But I also discuss my concerns about the role being played by the United Nations on business and human rights.

I have one further thought to add today in light of Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said that instead the US would “negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores”. This kind of rhetoric which equates ‘fairness’ with national interest is what fills the vacuum if we cannot articulate a version of globalization that benefits all. Human rights could be an important part of that story. It is sad that currently it sits on the margins. I will write more in the coming weeks about how that could change…

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights: On the right journey?

“I suspect you were surprised by the results of the US election and Brexit.” These were the opening words I heard from the opening keynote speaker, Professor John Ruggie, at the opening plenary of the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.

The UN Forum is the world’s largest annual gathering on business and human rights. Around 2,500 participants from government, business, civil society, UN bodies, trade unions, academia and various other organisations are in attendance. More than 60 panel discussion will take place over the next 3 days.


Picture at the Palais Des Nations outside the main conference room of the UN Business and Human Rights Forum

Professor Ruggie’ introduction is testament to the fact that this Year’s Forum is taking place in the shadow of recent political events in the US and the UK. He then harked back to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s 1999 speech. I looked it up. Its worth reading because it seems rather prescient about current events:  

“National markets are held together by shared values. In the face of economic transition and insecurity, people know that if the worst comes to the worst, they can rely on the expectation that certain minimum standards will prevail. But in the global market, people do not yet have that confidence. Until they do have it, the global economy will be fragile and vulnerable — vulnerable to backlash from all the “isms” of our post-cold-war world: protectionism; populism; nationalism; ethnic chauvinism; fanaticism; and terrorism.What all those “isms” have in common is that they exploit the insecurity and misery of people who feel threatened or victimized by the global market. The more wretched and insecure people there are, the more those “isms” will continue to gain ground. What we have to do is find a way of embedding the global market in a network of shared values.”

Perhaps therefore the question the forum aims to answer is: What role can and should human rights be playing as a set of shared ‘values’ which can make the global market a place people can trust?

Throughout the first day of the forum, numerous speakers made clear that there are very serious problems to be tackled. For instance, Jeremy Oppenheim, Programme Director of the Global Business and Sustainable Development Commission highlighted all of our individual complicity in labour abuses:“All of us in this room are wearing clothes, or carrying a phone where there is informal labour which does not respect fundamental rights.”

So to what extent are international human rights standards playing a serious role in tackling these issues, and a myriad of others? The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), designed by Professor Ruggie, are very much the centre-piece of the UN’s efforts in this field. But Professor Ruggie and his fellow speakers on the opening panel made it clear that a lot more needs to be done if the UNGPs are to make people have confidence in global supply chains.

For Ruggie, the biggest issue seemed to be that governments need to do more to promote the UNGPs. For fellow panelist Mark Wilson, CEO of Aviva, more competition between companies over their human rights performance is key: “Once you make it a competitive sport, companies want to top the rankings”. But the forum is so packed with different panels that everything moves on swiftly. There is no opportunity to interrogate specifics: what should we be calling on governments to do? How will competition work so that it really drives up standards of human rights protection on the ground?

And so I attended a series of panel discussions on decent work in global supply chains, banking and human rights reporting, community human rights impact assessments of multinational companies, and the role of investors in leveraging human rights performance by companies. I listened to impressive examples of community activism, extensive efforts by multi-stakeholder groups to improve corporate human rights performance and depressing examples of the suffering of many poor and marginalized workers and communities around the world.

I am struck by how many people talk using the metaphor of a journey on which they are taking their first steps; towards greater transparency in human right reporting, towards better human rights ‘due diligence’ processes, towards more effective complaints mechanisms for victims. Before I leave the forum on Wednesday I want to work out whether the UNGPs are a vehicle which will help with these journeys and get us to a destination where people feel less threatened or victimized by the global market.


Failing to Make Sense of the World on A Train Journey to Lausanne

About 10 years ago I took the decision to stop flying in Western Europe. A ‘not in my name’ gesture against climate change.  The only exception so far – best-man’s duties at a stag-do in Lisbon. Otherwise, the Man in Seat 61 and Loco have helped me find train routes to cities across Europe – from Madrid to Vienna, Florence to Zurich.  Its not a massive sacrifice. I am an academic, so time on trains can be spent profitably – reading, writing and (if needs must!) marking.

Today is a day on the train, because tomorrow I am attending the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. This morning I left my family in London and eight hours later I am getting close to my destination.

Its a Sunday. So I decided to give the work a rest. Before I boarded my train I bought the Observer, the Economist, Time Magazine, the Spectator, Prospect and the New Statesman. My world feels upside down after the US election results last week. I wanted to get views from across the political spectrum that might help me to find myself again.

It hasn’t worked. I have read some great insider pieces from journalists who travelled round the US on the campaign trail (particularly from Zeke Miller and Phillip Elliot in Time). I have digested some interesting analysis of US voting patterns (confirming the importance of racial divides, dislike of Hilary, and the revolt of the ‘rust belt’)  . Everywhere, I have read that what happens next is pretty much impossible to predict.

At the end of my journey, I look back on Morning Me and realize the foolishness of my expectations. People are still in shock. In mourning for kinder times. And there is too much uncertainty for anything deeper and more profound. For now.

But there is one thing missing that does still shock me: No deep reflection from the intellectual elites writing in the magazines I have been reading about the pathways towards re-connecting with ordinary people. Because if there is one thing that the US election showed (as well as the UK’s Brexit vote) it is that ideas from those elites are of marginal importance in big choices people are making about their futures. And commentators in newspapers, just like academics in universities, need to start thinking about how to change that…

Teaching Workers’ Rights Using Harry Potter

My friend and colleague at Warwick, Dr. Alison Struthers, is a leading expert on human rights education. She also practices what she preaches. She teaches primary school aged children about human rights. A few weeks ago she asked me if I would teach a class of 9-10 year olds about a human rights topic. I have been researching labour standards in trade agreements and global supply chains intensively for the last year. So that is the topic I chose. But then I had to figure out how to make it interesting for such a young audience.

Ali’s idea was that we started off with a children’s book. Is there an engaging children’s book about labour standards? It was obvious to my 10 year old daughter:

“Tell them about Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter Books” she said to me.

So at 10 O’clock this morning I was nervously showing a group of primary school children this video of Dobby meeting Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets film. And then reading extracts of the book, trying to imitate Dobby’s squeaky voice.

The children were amazing. They listened carefully and picked up on the terrible treatment Dobby received at the hands of his masters, the Malfoys. They understood that he was enslaved and this meant he could not leave and get another job. They picked up on his terrible clothes and the fact that he did not have enough food to eat.

And then we discussed how many workers in the real world suffer forced labour and do not get paid a ‘living wage’. We talked about campaigns to help them. We looked at (and later ate!) chocolate bars with Fair Trade and Rainbow Alliance logos on, and explored what these schemes can do for workers around the globe, and what their limitations are.

After my depression at election results this week, it made me hopeful again. There are plenty of young people out there who want to learn about the situation of people less fortunate than themselves, who empathise strongly, and who want to know what they can do to help. We just have to work on their adult leaders now…..

Trump and Trade

I woke up at 4am this morning and went straight to the TV. Three hours later I am still in a state of shock. For a European who is co-director of a human rights centre, trying to make sense of Trump’s apparent victory is tough. How can a man who has said such derogatory things about women, minorities and immigrants, who in election debates came over as such a bully and a braggart be so popular among so many people? How much is it a positive endorsement of Trump’s views, attitudes and policy agendas? How much is this a vote against Hilary Clinton (and how much is that about a dislike of her policies, or her as a person, or anti-establishment sentiment or even simple misogyny)?

I am a British citizen who is still trying to make sense of Brexit. While there are differences, there are also clear parallels. Both votes seem (at least in part) like a howl of rage from disaffected voters who feel like their lives are getting worse not better. And that rage is in part directed at the failure of their governments to make the economic system work for them. Many people do not see the movement of goods, workers and capital from country to country as a benefit to them. Quite the opposite. And they are encouraged to blame ‘the other’. The migrant. The foreign goods. The policies of foreign governments (devaluing their currencies) or European ‘bureaucracies’ (imposing their regulations on us).

Trump has said he will “rip up” existing trade agreements, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and impose a 35 percent tariff on imports from Mexico and a 45 percent tariff on imports from China. And as I watch the final rites of the election, markets are tumbling and economists predicting very turbulent times ahead, largely because of fear that Trump might enact these policies. Its the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and the great depression all over again. We will have to wait and see what now happens in reality. He wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate to tone down anti-trade  rhetoric when he actually gets into office. And some pundits are already saying that Trump is a businessman. He will want to trade, get deals done. His anti-trade rhetoric was just a ruse to get him elected.

But whatever happens next, we need to reflect on why anti-globalization sentiment is a key component part of the Brexit and US election dynamic. Those that see the problems as simple (Trump, Farage) are able to convince electorates that the answers are simple too; We need to exclude people and/or goods from our shores, and then the system will start to work for us again.

Most of the rest of us recognise that there are problems with the system. They are just more complex; an increasingly yawning gap within all countries between the haves and have-nots, a taxation system that is not capturing the value of goods and services within the nation state but allowing it to be squirreled away by global elites, a trading system that works for (at least some of) us as the consumers of goods and services, but appears to ignore our role as workers, who need to produce in order to consume. And so on.

Today, I am still reeling with shock, mourning for a world where elections make me feel hopeful not fearful. But if we are to repair divided national psyches in the US and the UK, then tomorrow we need to wake up ready to start the hard work of thinking and persuading.