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The 8th United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights - GICJ Report

Since 2012 the Forum is organised by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, in accordance of the Human Rights Council resolution 17/4 of July 2011, which created both the Working Group and the Forum.[1] The mandate of the Working Group has been extended for three more years by Human Rights Council resolution 35/7 of June 2017.[2] The aim of the Forum is to bring together governments, business and civil society to share good practices and ideas in order to facilitates the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

During these, and under the guidance of the three UNGPs’ pillars, panellists looked at the role of governments and businesses in the access to remedies, the fight against corruption and for accountability, as well as the impact on businesses on peace, climate change and so on.

The opening plenary started with a video message from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, stating the importance of the forum on Business and Human Rights and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights guidelines to prevent, address, and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations.

He further mentioned the persistent inequalities and the climate crisis, noting it was time for cooperation to step up efforts to adopt and promote responsible business practices and advance sustainable development goals.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, took the floor, saying that we need action by States to pass or uphold legislation that meets international human rights and labor standards, which protects workers and affected communities, including effective policies, regulation, economic incentives, guidance, and the promotion of dialogue among relevant actors.

She noted that although more and more companies are recognizing their corporate responsibility to respect human rights, we are still seeing unprincipled business practices, which continue to generate preventable human suffering, impede inclusive and sustainable development, and fuel inequalities.

Bachelet also highlighted the attacks and killings of human rights defenders, online hate speech, harassment, the use of mass surveillance by governments, businesses, and other private actors that intensify discrimination and violate the right to privacy, as well as a wide range of other rights.

Kos outlined that we must identify specific challenges related to inequality, and work to create more complementarity on different initiatives, address the issue of tax regimes, and serve  as an accountability mechanism for SDGs implementation.

She emphasized the need to take decisive and concrete action and that under international human rights law, States have an obligation to protect people against human rights abuses by business enterprises.

The Guiding Principles clarify that to implement this duty, States should consider a 'smart mix' of measures – national and international, mandatory and voluntary – to foster business respect for human rights.

She noted that as governments, we must do our part to regulate, guide and hold business accountable and businesses must respect human rights, people, and the planet, as well as not undermine sustainable development.

Elżbieta Karska started her presentation on a positive note, stating that we are witnessing some progressive legal and policy developments, such as anti-slavery legislation adopted in some jurisdictions, the duty of vigilance law in France which has set the example for similar initiatives elsewhere, the working tide for mandatory human rights due diligence in Europe, Thailand recently becoming the first country in Asia to issue a stand-alone national action plan, and the momentum in parts of Asia, with similar processes in several countries.

The draft placed strong emphasis on gender commitment, encouraged responsible business behavior that takes into account a positive gender focus, and the gender perspective for all fields.

She noted that women working in labor industries are often young and in unpaid positions, causing women’s issues to be insufficiently prioritized and forcing many women to exit the workplace after marriage.

He stated that companies can respect the right of women workers by providing safety equipment designed for women and ensure that women are not subject to sexual harassment.

The session then opened up for interaction from the audience, with questions such as how to ensure the rights of indigenous women in the workplace, partnerships with civil society, and creating an intersectionality approach for marginalized women.

Anniken Enersen, the Minister-Counselor Human Rights for the Mission of Norway, offered practical advice on the gender aspect of business industries, such as offering flexible parental leave, getting women to join all industry sectors, and encouraging women to be present in all levels of business operations.

She discussed her recently published report, which details guidance on how to assess adverse impact of global supply chains on women by collecting data on a broad set of indicators.

She noted measures undertaken by the company, such as trainings for gender and ethnic bias for mangers and recruiters and installing gender-neutral parental leave to recognize all family models.

The last speaker, Harpreet Kaur, a Business and Human Rights Specialist at the UNDP Asia Regional Hub office in Bangkok, commended the gender guidance report by the Working Group, stating it represented a turning point for the integration of human rights of women and girls in UN guiding principles.

This panel of seven speakers recalled the precarious and difficult situation migrants and asylum seekers are in when they reach their country of destination, and their disbelief when they are put in migrant detention centre.

This created a profitable system for these companies, as they are well-paid by the government often through no-bid contract, and have the means to lobby for a government even more permissive for them, which causes human rights concerns.

The panellists stated that these companies are often composed of former military personnel, without any formation in dealing with traumatised population, leading to more infringement upon the asylum seeker or migrant’s rights.

They called for more powerful pieces of legislation that clearly states which activities can be delegated to private security companies, and for civil society to advocate against the criminalisation of migrants and of the people helping them.

Do companies prefer State action or inaction when it comes to promoting business respect for human rights – Stories from the frontline of businesses calling for action The panellists for this meeting were: Chloe Poynton, co-founder and principal of Article One;

The meeting started by the recall of UNGP principle 3 “States should not assume that businesses invariably prefer, or benefit from, State inaction, and they should consider a smart mix of measures … to foster business respect for human rights.”, as well as the aim, in this meeting, to give the businesses’ perspective of this issue.

The panellists explained that many companies have expressed their view that government is not investing or acting enough on business and human rights, and gave example of companies moving forwards to enhance the respect of human rights, even though legislation in the country may be lacking.

Regarding the companies’ fear of being criticised for speaking out on one issue and not another one, the panellists explained that the issues to speak out depends on individual company politics, the country it is located in and what the stakeholder’s expectations are.

She mentioned the necessity of information and data collection to create meaningful impact, noting the shift towards investors understanding that any investment has both positive and negative impacts.

He stated that pension funds have the leverage and influence necessary to impact the field and the necessity of a solution that is more systematic and proactive, rather than reactive, when dealing with companies who violate human rights standards.

There were several questions from the audience, such as companies addressing the new problems associated with technology, how National Action Plans can take a more proactive action approach, what good practices are employed by mining companies, the additional challenges present in developing countries, and how to work and engage with unions.

Thus, legislations should be modified to broaden the scope of protection to cover every type of work and give all types of workers the same rights, especially regarding the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association, and the same protection.

They explained that informal workers are 50% less likely to be unionised, because it is often prohibited under competition laws, stating that such laws were designed to protect the consumers but are now used by big companies to prevent workers from bargaining.

In this regard, they raised the example of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (in India) which sets up a fund in a particular sector where all corporations have to pay social security contribution to the fund and where all workers are registered as workers but don’t have to prove an employment relationship with a specific employer.

Catalytic public-private partnerships: Working with governments to drive business respect for human rights in the cocoa sector Child labour and forced labour in the cocoa sector in West Africa were the main subjects of discussion.

Karvar, from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), drew attention to the significance of sustainable development agenda, NGOs within the industry and social responsibility of the companies operating within the cocoa industry.  She shared her experience of working with multi-national businesses and the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing.

He discussed important factors such as awareness raising, due diligence, ratification of many UN’s Conventions, social protections and respect for the rule of law.  Mr. Fountain also added that although many changes have happened since 2006, there are still a lot of problems.

He finished the discussion by stating that a real societal change happens over decades and thus there is more focus needed on long term goals.  Finance against slavery: How government action and public-private partnerships can work to end modern slavery and human trafficking The event opened with remarks from James Cockayne, Director of the United Nations University Center for Policy Research, who stated that there are currently 40.3 million people estimated by the ILO to be in modern slavery.

The event closed with Mr. Cockayne thanking both the panelist of speakers and the audience for attending the session.   Combatting internet shutdowns, social media taxes, and censorship This session looked at the unique ways in which governments are using internet shutdowns, taxes on social media, and censorship laws to attack freedom of expression.

Taye explained that an internet shutdown can be defined as an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.

Okkonen said that from a company’s perspective, when a government makes a request of an internet shutdown and this request is legal, the company must comply and proceed with it, otherwise it means that they are not complying with the national law.

She encouraged states to be more transparent when requesting these kinds of actions and work closer to civil society, in order to tackle the threat to the right to freedom of expression, privacy, and association.

He further said that when Facebook receives requests to censor pieces of contents, the company has a high formal treatment, in order to properly respond to the governments, through an in-depth legal analysis of the national law and its accordance with the international human rights instruments.

He concluded by saying that governments should recognize the serious consequences of disrupting network access and content censorship, and see shutdowns through a human rights and development lens, not solely through a political or security lens.

Finally, the speakers agreed that any restrictions on information online service in times of emergency should be thoroughly defined, subject to prior judicial approval, and reserved for exceptional circumstances.

The economic and human rights harms of network shutdowns reinforce each other, and are of particular concern in developing countries, emerging and fragile democracies, and jurisdictions with weak rule of law.

They ended by saying that clear, precise, and transparent legal frameworks regarding government authority to restrict communications do not exist in all states, and provisions for adequate, independent oversight are often absent.

ICT companies, from mobile network operators to social media companies, should cooperate with each other and with experts across academia, governments, international institutions, civil society, and the media to raise awareness of the serious, long-term social and economic impacts of these disruptions.

Human rights due diligence: trends and challenges During this meeting, the panellists discussed what progress has been made in regard to the respect of human rights due diligence in businesses, and the role the State within the process.

They mentioned that some companies and investors expect governments to make the human rights due diligence process mandatory in order to move forwards, and also expect the European Union to take actions.

They stated that in terms of expected outcomes, some progress has been made with the new government policies, the enforcement of existing legislation and by starting to adopt certain legal requirements in supply chains and middle markets.

Giving the governmental point of view, a representative of the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs explained that the concept of due diligence should be looked at in terms of a social contract between the government, the private sector and citizens and that, instead of doing the thing right, governments should do the right things.

Then, she stated that even though only 20 countries have a national action plan on business and human rights, the impact of these action plans is felt more broadly due to the interrelation of businesses.

Nevertheless, the panellists explained that companies are often very reluctant to publicly disclose risks as well as any information relating to human rights due diligence, even when they are actually taking steps to improve the situation.

One example showed that UK courts decided not to apply a restrictive approach to company liability and that the parent company’s responsibility can be engaged if it has taken actions that prove its involvement with the other company.

Regarding the argument that companies often raise, that they cannot provide help concerning human rights issues, especially when these happened in supply chains, one panellist stated that companies find a solution in no time when a technical issue arises in the supply chain to get their product ready, and thus they could do the same when human rights issues takes place.

Finally, in regards to the support that business can bring to individuals in accessing remedies, Laura O’Brien, Policy and Advocacy Fellow at Access Now explained how they provide legal assistance, how they can help with internet access for human rights defenders that have been denied their rights, and to encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue.

She asked whether integrity and risk analysis of human rights for corporations were governed by the state, if due diligence is mandatory or state-promoted, funding of international corporations for development, and what the implementing mechanisms for NAP’s are.

Mr. Wilska responded with the voluntary approach for due diligence undertaken by the Finnish government, guiding principles and due diligence practices recommended for companies receiving state financing, and public procurement guidelines published by the government.

These surveys showed that the majority of the participants believed that an international peer review could improve NAP’s, civil society should be the most involved during the peer review, and the national human rights institution should host the peer review.

Mr. Wilska closed the event by offering a suggestion to the international community that although the NAP creation process can become difficult and politicized, it is necessary to first get started on creating the plan and facing obstacles as they come.

There were four panelists whose objectives were either to explain their specific cases, denounce a personal situation or present their project in order to achieve a better access to legal assistance, justice and remedy for indigenous people.

He emphasized that, there are huge inequalities when it comes to access to justice between indigenous peoples and big companies, and that the problem is not with green energy, but with the way the project is imposed on the communities living there.

Lyckman, a representative from the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs, addressing the idea of businesses working against corruption, sustainable development and transparency.  Swedish companies have a long history of active Corporate Responsibility (CPR) and Sweden is often perceived as a pioneer within the field.

She identified three major areas to focus on when dealing with corruption: transparency, democratic development and gender equality.  She also mentioned that high levels of corruption discourage international investment, slow down social development and harbour poverty.

Lyckman also highlighted the fact that it is mostly women who bear negative consequences of corruption and recognised the connection between corruption and gender inequality.  In addition, she also acknowledged that states and businesses must create a partnership and learn to trust each other.  Next, Ms.

Lonean also mentioned TI’s project of monitoring several countries on the issue of corruption, private property rights, public- private partnerships and local legal means of fighting corruption.  In addition, Ms.

Overall, all the panelists supported the important role human rights defenders have in the fulfilment of the SDGs, as these serve as conceptual framework and common language to achieve effective protection of environmental human rights.

Addressing climate change: The business and human rights connexion The session explored what businesses should do to prevent climate harms and how states should support this goal by adopting appropriate policies and legal regulation.

Mr. Deva started his presentation saying that climate change is the most serious threat facing humanity, and that urgent action is needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and address climate-related risks.

Tebar-Less said that the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are the most comprehensive government-backed instrument on responsible business conduct, representing international consensus on the responsibility of companies regarding impacts on people and the planet – including climate change.

She emphasized that one of the key expectations reflected in the Guidelines is that companies should contribute to sustainable development, avoid causing or contributing to adverse impacts, and seek to prevent or mitigate adverse impacts linked to their operations, products, or services to which they are directly linked by a business relationship.

O’Brien stated that climate change has been significantly reducing surface water and groundwater resources in most dry subtropical regions, thus intensifying competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry, and energy production, while affecting regional water, energy, and food security.

It also increases the frequency of droughts in dry areas.  She ended by stressing people are on the move, since this is a recipe for a human rights disaster and that companies are not preventing or mitigating climate harms as they do not respect human rights.

According to her, a recent tally concluded that climate change-related lawsuits have been filed in at least 28 countries, and they are being initiated by groups including young people, women, farmers, families, migrants, students, and organizations working for environmental and social justice.

Although neither the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights nor the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises explicitly mention climate change, it is widely accepted that the business responsibility to respect human rights and environmental rights includes the responsibility to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for climate change.

However, what this responsibility means in practice for corporate human rights due diligence, as well as for state duty to protect against human rights abuses by businesses, require further and effective elaboration and commitment.

Discount workers – a fight for justice in global supply chains (film) The documentary addresses the quest for judicial remedy of Pakistani rights’ holders affected by the Ali Enterprise factory fire that killed 259 workers, revealing the barriers faced and the lasting impacts of the tragedy.

The film follows one of the affected families in Pakistan, their dealings with the Pakistani justice system and their fight for justice in Germany when suing KIK, the German fashion chain for which they were making clothes at Ali Enterprise factory.  Yet, the case was dismissed on the grounds of being submitted too late after the incident occurred and thus the statute of limitations had expired.  The case highlighted the issues of global supply chains, due diligence, burden of proof and the lack of transparency.

The government has committed itself to legislative measures if by 2020 fewer than 50 percent of German companies with more than 500 employees have not introduced effective human rights due diligence process.

Furthermore, he discussed the painfully slow pace of Pakistani courts, the issue of environmental due diligence and the high amount of pressure that otherwise united communities are put under during court proceedings.

it's just beneficial for investors.  In general, ethical companies have to compete against those that rely on forced labour and thus, to create a system of fairness, all German companies should abide by the same standards.  Transparency and beyond: Taking shock of legislative approaches to eradicating modern slavery in global supply chains Modern slavery is highly present in global supply chains, generating profits over 150 billion USD each year.

She questioned the content of statements and how long the statements concerned should remain in companies’ websites.  She shared her concerns related to the lack of commitment with only 25 percent of businesses complying with the procedures and also the fact that they often are more concerned with self-preservation.  Ms.

Mr. Gadelha, a Deputy in the Brazilian Congress, expressed his worries about the current presidency indirectly encourages child labour and contributes to worsening general labour conditions.  Mr. Kwok from the Hong Kong Legislative Council said that the new antislavery measures in Hong Kong are based on the UK Modern Slavery Act.

Building a child labour free MICA industry: The role of government, business, NGOs and communities Through discussing a variety of case studies, the session provided valuable insight into the process of   eliminating child labour in MICA mining in India.

Children’s rights and business – protecting children and fostering responsible business This panel discussion showcased catalyzing examples of government policy successes that bring scale to priority business actions, which affect children’s rights and those of their families.

Gornitska started her presentation saying that UNICEF wants to see more governments playing a visible leadership role in convening the State, business, and civil society around addressing business social impact in ways that make children’s rights explicit.

She further emphasized that the abuse of children’s rights today is unacceptable on its own terms, limiting and damaging our future society, as well as our collective goal of achieving the SDGs.  She concluded by stating we must aim for scale by seeing States taking leadership, individually and collectively, and working together with business, multilaterals, and civil society to make this happen.

Mr. Kombo further said that it has been difficult to implement legislation against child labor and national action plans in this regard, because if they disengage children from labor, due to the economic scenario in Tanzania, another grave issue would likely emerge: poverty.

Through this partnership, they have started to incentivize children to go to school by implementing extra-curricular activities, including planting vegetables and fruits, tea and coffee breaks, and providing free school uniforms and materials.

Sabater and Mr. Coleman spoke about the “New Child Rights and Security Handbook.” They explained that this companion guide helps governments and companies to improve the protection of children's rights within security arrangements and reduce security-related human rights abuses of children and young people, particularly at and around mining, oil, and gas operations sites overseas.

They further emphasized that improving the well-being of children around the world requires robust and holistic approaches, meaning that we have to be prepared to work with security sector actors, multinational business leaders, humanitarians, and local populations collectively.

Van den Berg also elaborated on taking necessary steps to understand the causes of conflict including analysis, drivers of conflict, previous engagement, different components and environment as well as preventing actual violent extremism.

For example, companies could, before selling a product, see if the State is involved in an unauthorised armed conflict, if it has ratified certain conventions on banned weapons, if evidences show the weapon will be used in violation of international humanitarian law and so on.

Information: The Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism is in the process of developing a guiding principle on the compliance of the use of biometric tools to collect and use data in the context of countering terrorism and calls for information and reports from businesses and civil society organisations.

Patrick Wilcken, researcher Arms Control, Security Trade and Human Rights at Amnesty International, talked about Amnesty’s research on the human rights policies and practices of leading companies operating in the defense sector.  In addition, he discussed recommendations for human rights due diligence by the defense sector.

Christian Schliemann, legal advisor at ECCHR, analysed ECCHR and FES’s recent study on arms trade, due diligence, accountability and the need for legislative reform, including access to remedy in administrative and criminal courts for arms exports.

Ramasastry, Member, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, mentioned that economic development in the region is over 2% and must be accompanied by respect for human rights in order to fight against sectarianism, restriction of freedom of expression and other challenges in the region.

Lebanon Programme Manager, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, also said that one of the main problem in the region in relation to business and human rights is the respect for the rights of migrant workers and refugees in all sectors, particularly in the construction where ethnic recruitment practices stand out.

[1] Human Rights Council resolution 17/4, Human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (6 July 2011).[2]  Human Rights Council resolution 35/7, Business and human rights: mandate of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (22 June 2017).