NEW YORK CITY, New York – With coffee sponsored by Belgium, Chile and others, participants of the United Nations’ Business and Human Rights Forum will convene in Geneva December 2 to discuss the current status of human rights in relation to business activities.The second meeting of its kind, the Forum represents the culmination of planning that began in the 1970s when the UN first began researching the effects of transnational corporations on development and international relations.
Now, decades after research began, businesses and States have reunited to discuss the principles and standards for human rights they agreed a year previously to uphold. The forum’s activities will focus on the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights, a set of values that emphasize the duty of both States and enterprises to fulfill fundamental human liberties and freedoms.
After his appointment as the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights in 2005, Harvard Professor John Ruggie created the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, a three-fold mandate that holds the State responsible for protecting human rights, corporations responsible for respecting those human rights and the due diligence of both parties to address and remedy and infringements.
Although Ruggie is not the first to create a business code of conduct, his principles herald the first global mandate acceptable to both the business sector as well as the United Nations.
“These Principles, unanimously endorsed in 2011 by the [Human Rights] Council, are the first globally accepted standards on the responsibilities of States and businesses for preventing and addressing business-related human rights abuse,” states the UN website.
In 2012, over 1,000 people from 85 countries attended the first Business and Human Rights Forum, and the second forum aims to continue public education and awareness of these principles.
“The overwhelming interest in this Forum is a sign of the imperative felt by all sides, including business, to prevent and address adverse human rights impacts linked to business activities,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay at 2012’s forum. “Our discussions here in Geneva reflect the actual challenges, good practice and lessons learned on the ground.”
Those invited to attend include intergovernmental organizations, human rights institutions, business enterprises and associations, labor unions, academics, representatives of indigenous peoples and non-governmental organizations. Participants are encouraged to share their experiences with the UN’s principles, including any tools, initiatives or practices they may have enacted that aided in its implementation.
“The objective of the Forum is to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” states the United Nations Human Rights website. The overall aim is to “promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights.”
Although these Principles have been met with wide-ranging optimism, there remains skepticism for perceived gaps in the business sector’s accountability. According to Surya Deva of the City University in Hong Kong, too many factors keep the state-centered principles from stabilizing within volatile countries.
“There are some states with authoritarian or oppressive regimes, which pay scant respect to the goal of promoting human rights,” said Deva. “Incapacity of developing states, on the other hand, is often the result of a number of factors such as undeveloped legal regime, weak enforcement of laws, economic hardships, corruption and non-independent courts.”
Despite possible shortcomings, Ruggie’s principles produced an immediate encouraging result. Although still in its infancy, the UN’s Forum fosters awareness and responsibility among its participants. Through them, the dissimilation of “Protect, Respect and Remedy” will have a chance at becoming standardized, not by law, but by will.
– Emily Bajet