The Odd Couple – Business and Human Rights

2014Business_Forum_headerIn the first week of December 2014, the United Nations in Geneva hosted the third Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. This is designed to showcase and review how fast the UN Guiding Principles (on Business and Human Rights) are being taken up by States, businesses and civil society, and notably by those who have been victims of human rights abuses by corporations.

How are they going? The score card seems to be mixed. States have begun to enact National Action Plans to implement the Guiding Principles. This may give them some control over the activities of corporations whose parent companies are registered in them. Some corporations (but only 5% of them, according to research) are rolling out comprehensive strategies, aimed at protecting human rights along their entire supply chain, from raw materials to waste disposal. Those seeking legal ‘remedy’ for violations of their rights by businesses, however, report a long and fruitless process. Legal loopholes prevent their reaching those ultimately responsible.

On the final day of the conference, a ‘Closing Conversation’ asked four speakers to address the topic: ‘What next? What is the way forward?’ We heard four opinions, one each from an African, Latin American and Asian perspective, and one from an NGO (Amnesty International).

From Africa, Aisha Abdullah, Commissioner for Political Affairs in the African Union, sketched a bright future, in terms of human and economic resources – 200 million young people 15 – 24 years old, 4.8% annual growth, $1.7 trillion in wealth, and $14 trillion in energy resources. She balanced that with the presence of the four ogres – poverty, war, corruption and autocracy. The way forward? A regional (all-Africa) set of policies and strategies to ensure extractive industries respect human rights.

From Latin America, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the UN in Geneva, spoke with passion about what it is like to be a State victimised by global corporations. Under a bilateral treaty, Ecuador has been sued by Chevron for $12 billion. Likewise, she said, Union Carbide in Bhopal, Shell in the Niger Delta, and some of the seventeen companies involved in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh have failed to deliver justice to victims of human rights violations. The way forward? A legally binding instrument (as established by Resolution 26/9 of the Human Rights Council) to close these legal gaps and restore hope to victims.

From Asia, Thomas Thomas, CEO of the ASEAN Corporate Social Responsibility Network, reflected the economic powerhouse that is Asia slowly becoming aware of the negative impact of business on the enjoyment of its peoples’ human rights. The bitter haze affecting health in many ASEAN countries is a symbol of what is forcing ASEAN members to cooperate on business and human rights, food security, anti-corruption practices and agricultural sustainability. The way forward? Encode the UN Guiding Principles in the economic goals of the ASEAN Economic Commission.

For Amnesty International, Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Thematic Issues, pointed to the clear distinction between those States and corporations who prevent human rights violations, which the Guiding Principles enable them to do well, and those States and corporations who abuse human rights. The latter are capable of ‘staggering injustice’ to their victims, they deny and lie about their abuse, and not one corporation (in her experience) has volunteered to remedy their victims. The way forward? Proceed with the process for a legally binding instrument, keeping the process open, confronting the lobbying of States by corporations, and without dismantling the Guiding Principles, in order to protect human rights effectively (not to compensate company shareholders).

This suggests there is a future for that odd couple (business and human rights) that at first seem to have little in common. The Guiding Principles lay down the three pillars – States are to protect human rights, businesses are to respect human rights, and those whose rights are violated are to find legal remedy. Everyone acknowledges there are close, but not always healthy, ties between business and States. Now, the challenge is to build a working partnership between them to protect human rights through a legally binding instrument, as per Resolution 26/9 of the Human Rights Council.

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