Comment: The 2nd Annual Forum on Business & Human Rights – The dialogue matures

The first Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2012 attracted almost a 1,000 participants – this alone, we suggested, was a feat worthy of note. The unexpected numbers of people led to ‘standing room only’ at many of the break-out sessions, panellist consistently spoke for too long, discussion never really got going, and there was hardly any time between sessions in which to meet other participants.

In contrast, this year’s event attracted 1,700 plus participants and while one might have expected an even more frenetic affair, it was well organised, almost strangely calm, and at times I wondered where all the people were. While the opening plenary suffered from high-level platitudes, the Economist Stiglitz excepted, the parallel sessions and side events featured good, focused speakers and valuable interactions – if not dialogue, a big step in the right direction. The #UNForumWatch twitter feed and blog and protestors at the gates are also a sign that the forum is coming of age. So what is there to make of this now annual event?

First, the numbers of participants, and where they come from. Almost double the participation from last year, tells us that interest is growing and spreading – but amongst whom? Many more government delegates were participating than last year, and it is clear that more and more governments are beginning to develop national strategies or action plans on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles (‘the Principles’). Including business associations, lawyers and consultants there were over 400 from business. The oil and gas sector was present in numbers, as were corporate lawyers, but a lack of businesses from other sectors is harder to interpret; are businesses not engaging with the Principles? Do they not see the value in the Forum itself? Or is it simply that they do not currently have the budgets to attend? 

Second, the voice of business.  As we saw in the CEO survey for the UN Global Compact, a number of leading companies who ‘get it’ and are prepared to talk about their work, and what they are learning on a panel, have opened up quite a gap to the many other companies who are still grappling with the term human rights and what practical steps can be taken. How to bring the individual business voice into the room remains a key challenge. It’s clear business representatives didn’t feel comfortable to speak out in front of the many activists in the auditorium, and the seat for businesses to ask questions or contribute to the panel discussion from the floor was often left empty, with the interventions that did come were more often from the business associations.

Third, content.  In the parallel sessions we noted:

  • The companies which did speak such as Microsoft, Telenor, Unilever and Nestle all had good substantial things to say
  • In general the focus was on sharing experiences and tools / approaches to specific topics such as the UNGC Business Reference Guide on Indigenous Peoples Rights or the sharing of experiences in Human Rights Impact Assessment
  • There is a shift underway in language and understanding from business risk and compliance, to impact on rights holders and due diligence
  • The difficult issues, such as worker organisations and freedom of association in supply chains or surveillance by security services weren’t shunned
  •  NGOs are making good use of the breadth of the Principles to challenge governments, and businesses, and strongly advocated for better access to remedy, for example, highlighting the absence of grievance mechanisms in the Thun banks paper
  • Measurement and reporting of human rights impacts and company human rights performance will be a key focus in the next 12 months, though there are many concerns about the challenges involved
  • As well as deepening the discussion of practice, there is a perceptible broadening of the discussion to incorporate the regions and specific countries

Informally, we found businesses continue to voice the need for simpler, practical and business-oriented language and tools – to demystify the topic. This is, of course, where we have often supported businesses over the past decade and a key purpose of our training courses which we deliver through the UN Global Compact Networks in the UK, Germany, Ukraine and shortly in Indonesia andKenya.  But it is clear there are two schools of thought emerging – those who seek to define with ever more precision the interaction between businesses and specific human rights and to adjust corporate practices accordingly, and those who seek to embed a general competence of identifying and managing human rights impacts in the culture and practice of business. Both are necessary, but are not necessarily easy bedfellows.

Looking forward, BSR’s Aron Cramer highlighted the disconnect between the innovation function within companies, and the people responsible for respecting human rights. It’s becoming ever clearer that to establish economic systems where the rights of all actors are respected, is going to require innovation.  But also, that there are innovations, particularly in the emerging markets in terms of supply and distribution which are supporting a more equal and inclusive society; such solutions are often arising from ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ or ‘Inclusive Business’ thinking.  Such different ways of thinking and acting by businesses, are critical to achieving respect for rights for all.

We look forward to working with companies in 2014 and continue to develop innovative approaches to social sustainability and respecting human rights. We will report on them at next year’s Forum.