The 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights: Improved, but due diligence discussions still a cause for concern

Since I wrote a rather scathing article about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2016, there has been a significant change in tone in the last two fora. And that is to be applauded.

This year, there were more panels where the problems and deficiencies of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights (UNGPs) were discussed. As highlighted in the final plenary by Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, governments need to do much, much more to support the UNGPs if they are going to have a significant impact on the human rights situation of workers and communities affected by business activity. 

Another improvement in this year’s forum was that there were more sessions where business representatives, trade unions and civil society activists discussed concrete human rights problems, and strategies for overcoming them. For instance, I learnt a great deal from a session on approaches to tackling the problems of vulnerable workers in supply chains (from campaigns on the exploitation of eastern European truck drivers to addressing the abuses of migrant labour in the Italian tomato industry).

There were also more sessions where the human rights performance of business was actively scrutinised. On several panels, business representatives sat alongside civil society representatives and academics and responded to criticism. 

But sadly, I still had a sense of widespread doubts about whether any of this will lead to real change in practice. Some of this reflects the difficult times we live in. Delegates who I encountered seemed downbeat about governments taking meaningful action in the face of so many other political crises. Others were skeptical that businesses would embrace the UN’s human rights agenda in a way that would lead to real change.

I share these concerns. At the same time, I think it is still important to look at where change could happen. Much of the focus of this year’s forum was on the commitment contained in the UNGPs for companies to carry out human rights due diligence. HRDD is central to business’ responsibility to respect human rights. It is therefore the cornerstone of the UNGPs. And I have written before in this blog about the fundamental problems with current practice.  

The UN Working Group have themselves identified the fact that there are many challenges in terms of getting companies to undertake meaningful HRDD. But I left the forum wondering whether proponents of HRDD are focusing on the right issues to make the situation better. There still seems to be an obsession with benchmarks (the problems of which i have discussed previously) and the importance of making the ‘business case’ for HRDD.

I stand by my previous argument that without transparent reporting on HRDD, there will be no progress. But at this year’s forum i was also stuck by another problem. It highlighted to me the increasing numbers of consultants who are employed by companies to undertake their HRDD, and the opaque and often difficult relationships they have with their paymasters.

At a session where i spoke, organised by Kendyl Salcito from Nomogaia, questions were raised about the relationships between consultants and businesses. When HRDD is undertaken by an outside consultancy this gives credibility and a perception of independence to the process. But can consultants perform robust and meaningful HRDD when companies hold most of the power in the relationship? How often are unreasonable demands made about the work that should be carried out and the resources required to do it? Can consultants demonstrate their own independence if they can’t publish their work? And when they come up with uncomfortable findings which the company isn’t expecting, what can they do to ensure those findings are acted upon?   

I wonder if it is time for more progressive consultants to come together and commit to a set of standards required for HRDD to be considered legitimate. This must include their right to publish the results of their work. Such standards would lend legitimacy to a group who are currently bearing much of the responsibility for ensuring the UNGPs are a worthwhile endeavour.              

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