Comment: UN Forum 2017 reflections - is this the best we've got to offer?

Photo Credit: Maina Kiai, licensed under a Creatvie Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License, posted originally on flickr.

 On the third and last day of the 2017 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, while the closing plenary was still on, I was about to leave the UN building in a hurry. I wanted to quickly overtake a woman at the main escalators leading down from room XX, when I realised she was hesitating to take the first step onto the escalator. She finally stepped on and I, suddenly realising how nervous she was, showed her how to step off without tripping. We briefly shook hands and had one of those brief moments together, where there are no cultural barriers because you just shared a basic human emotion. It was indeed the first time in her life that she took an escalator! I briefly glanced at her badge while heading out and realised she was from the Niger Delta. 

These 15 seconds made me remember again that this is what it should all be about. This is our ultimate clientele – no matter if we are consultants, lawyers, CSR or compliance specialists within companies, NGOs or government representatives. And the feeling sunk in, of how little true engagement there still is between their world and ours – in year six of the UN Forum. Our business and human rights community and the actual rightsholders impacted by corporate activities are operating largely in separate silos (not bridged by the increasingly popular ‘worker voice’ that is sadly already on its way to becoming a commodity).

Something needs to change! This year’s Forum felt as if it was attended by even less companies and even more lawyers and consultants. Most sessions were again designed as a series of pitches for different service providers and initiatives – largely the same as every year. There was little innovation presented or real insight shared beyond what you can find on the presenting organisations’ websites or what has been shown by academic research for ages. To give you one example: I heard at least six times that trade unions and freedom of association are the most important grievance mechanism. Do we, who should be leaders in this debate, really gather in Geneva every year to exchange those truisms. Shouldn’t we be leading the practical change is this field? Are we really?

In conversations with others in and around the UN premises, I heard that I was not alone with my opinion. Most people I spoke to, said this year offered particularly little insight and that they only come for the networking. (If that is the case, then let’s move the Forum to the summer month and have a barbecue near the lake 😉). For me this is not ambitious enough!

Let me offer just a couple of thoughts on the way forward:

Are we focusing on the right things? Our field of work is confronted with massive megatrends such as climate change and its social consequences, the future of work shaped by automation and social exclusion, digitisation which holds the potential of further dehumanisation of workplaces and intrusion of privacy. Yet, there was only one good session at this year’s Forum picking up topics such as artificial intelligence and its potential impacts on human rights.

As these megatrends are becoming increasingly disruptive, shouldn't we also? Why do we have to keep hearing presentations about audit-like approaches and the same challenges to engagement beyond Tier 1 we heard in the same rooms years ago? Why don’t we present more innovative approaches and showcase examples that break with concepts that have shown little tangible results? We should rather highlight projects that can achieve measurable change for people on the ground instead of staying in the abstract. Let us speak honestly about what is really needed to drive change across global supply chains and rally our efforts behind attempts that are likely to deliver the systems change we need instead of promoting individual organizational interests.

Are we pushing hard enough to leave our comfort zones and break down our silos? The business and human rights world revolves largely around itself. We need to open our debates and align with others striving for real change – in the field of climate change, poverty eradication, social inclusion, future of work, just to name a few. We can already observe that the debate on the SDGs within companies (and elsewhere!) is mostly disconnected from the human rights debate. This is an alarming development considering that we all know that one can’t be realised without the other. Making real progress would require us to really engage, work together, share more openly between organisations and across sectors instead of building up more competing initiatives.

To end on a positive note, there were indeed glimpses of hope at this year’s Forum: New faces with inspiring stories they shared in between the sessions (sadly they have not been selected to present), more organised indigenous peoples’ participation, very engaged UN Working Group members that aim to bridge divides between stakeholder communities. Let's see if we together can turn the Forum into something more meaningful than a big meet and greet and endless series of receptions. twentyfifty is ready to support this change – please reach out to us!