What Does It Look Like When Business Leaders and Human Rights Defenders Work Together?

12/19/2018
Geneva

“Where we see the truth, then remedy is possible. But if you skewer the truth, it is easy to say ‘it’s not my responsibility’”

- Sharan Burrow, Vice-Chair, The B Team and General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation  

At The B Team, we’re dedicated to building a world where all people live in dignity. For business, this means respecting human rights in operations and across value chains, but also taking brave action in standing up and speaking out to protect human rights when they are under threat.

To make meaningful impact leaders need to consider collaboration across sectors. That’s why our team participated in last month’s 7th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, joining 2,500+ representatives from government, business, civil society and investors in the largest global annual gathering on business and human rights.

This year’s Forum focused on the second pillar of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs): the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and, in particular, the requirement that companies conduct human rights due diligence. B Team Vice-Chair Sharan Burrow closed out the Forum stressing the importance of corporate respect for freedom of association in order to have effective due diligence.

“If we don’t demand that governments put the rule of law in place and shun those that don’t make it possible, I fear that fracturing will continue,” she emphasised, “The answer lies in purpose around human rights due diligence.”

In line with Sharan’s call, our team led and contributed to sessions on the role of business in protecting human rights in public policy, integrating a gender lens in the UNGPs, protecting civic freedoms and human rights defenders and responsible tax conduct.  We sat down with our Business and Human Rights Manager, Michelle Lau-Burke, to talk about key Forum takeaways and recent trends in how business action can advance human rights globally.

This year’s Forum focused on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and, in particular, to conduct human rights due diligence. How do you think business can play an effective role beyond these requirements? Was this addressed at the Forum?   

Conducting human rights due diligence, as set out in the UNGPs, is a brave task. It entails not only “knowing and showing” that a company respects human rights in its own operations, but also all along its value chain. This includes assessing impacts from a company’s business relationships – such as whether a supplier is using forced labour or child labour, or whether a customer is misusing a product in a way that harms human rights.

In addition to conducting human rights due diligence, businesses and investors can use their influence to champion and help protect human rights. At the Forum, The B Team and BSR hosted a session inviting companies and investors to share examples of how they have used their commercial and brand leverage – at times spurred on by employee and consumer activism – to stand up for human rights in public policy and defend universal values such as equality. We have observed this trend in the U.S. and would like to see it spread and accelerate.  

Our team participated in a number of discussions at the Forum ranging from business’ role in responsible tax practice to incorporating a gender lens to the Guiding Principles. Were there any key themes that consistently emerged in these conversations?

One theme that emerged throughout the conference is the importance of addressing inequality and the impacts on the most vulnerable. There were several sessions on big disruptive changes such as AI, automation and climate change and how taking a rights-based approach is critical to managing these transitions. The B Team’s work on just transition responds to the dual needs of tackling inequality and climate disruption. We also participated in sessions on responsible tax practice and developing a gender lens to business and human rights, which highlighted women’s unique and often disproportionate experience with business-related human rights impacts. A number of solutions were discussed including integrating a gender lens to human rights due diligence, protecting worker rights, improving remediation processes, and advocating for social protection floors on issues such as healthcare and education.

This year marked the highest level of business participation in the Forum’s seven years —with 29 percent of attendees from the private sector. How did you feel this informed conversations?

Business participation has nearly doubled from just a few years ago, which shows a growing interest from company leaders to understand and improve their social and human rights impacts. It’s also worth noting that it was the first time that the Forum featured a CEO panel in the opening plenary. This high-level participation from companies helps set the tone from the top and ensure that human rights responsibilities are embedded across company functions, starting at the CEO and Board level.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a wave of business leaders taking strong stands on key social and human rights issues. Do you think the surge in business attendees reflects this trend? Do events like the Forum help these leaders translate these statements into action?

Businesses are powerful platforms for change, both by “leading by example” in their operations and through external influencing such as policy engagement. The Forum provides an important venue and opportunity for company representatives to come together with civil society, government and investors to have practical, solutions-focused conversations on business and human rights challenges. These conversations are essential for helping companies turn their policy commitments into practice.

From your perspective, what was the biggest takeaway for business from this year’s Forum?

My biggest takeaway was the importance of hearing from affected rights-holders themselves. Several sessions featured human rights defenders, such as indigenous leaders, and for the first time, former child labourers shared perspectives on panels. Meaningful stakeholder engagement is essential to credible human rights due diligence. However, hearing from affected communities may sometimes be difficult because there has been a global trend towards closing civic space and increasing threats to human rights defenders. The B Team’s research shows that protecting civic freedoms is good for human rights and good for business. I’m encouraged to see that increasingly, companies are realizing the risks of staying silent are greater than the risks of standing up and speaking out to protect human rights.

Photo by OCHCHR/Pierre Albouy

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