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.


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

  1. Pingback: Human Rights and Business: Is the United Nations Helping? – Rights, Justice and the Economy

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