Last week, we attended the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, the world’s largest annual gathering on business and human rights, for the first time since 2019. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, it was great to be back, and not just to see so many friends and colleagues in person again. This year’s Forum was held amidst multiple crises that are challenging the way businesses address their responsibility to respect human rights, from the Russia-Ukraine war to the human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. And it came at a moment when the business and human rights field is on the precipice of a new regulatory regime. As such, the Forum was also an opportunity to take stock and see where our field is headed at such a pivotal moment for business and human rights.
Reflecting on the discussions in Geneva, here are five key challenges for business and human rights leaders to tackle in 2023 and beyond:
Getting back to Constructive Dialogue: Following a two-year hiatus, valuable in-person engagement between civil society, business, and government resumed this year at the UN Forum. Being back in person at a major business and human rights conference felt a bit like going back in time. And unfortunately, in more ways than one: Much of the dialogue at the Forum had reverted to the more adversarial exchanges that characterized the early iterations of the annual event, with some civil society groups questioning companies’ motives for participating and representatives from business reacting defensively to demands for meaningful action. This may simply be a sign of the high stakes for business and human rights right now, with some of the most pressing human rights issues involving business, and with time running out for preventing the worst climate outcomes that will have dire human rights consequences. However, to meet this moment, those in the business and human rights field should continue constructive dialogue and – more importantly – collaborative action, recognizing that whether we are advancing human rights from inside or outside a company, we are all working towards the same goal.
Internal Competition for Ownership of Human Rights: Not long ago, it was all too common for companies to struggle to find the right function for leading human rights. We were often asked by our clients where human rights should sit within their organization – in legal, corporate affairs, supply chain, or in other functions. And more often than not, teams would urge other teams to take human rights off their hands. Judging by conversations with many of our clients this year, this game of “hot potato” has been replaced with a new struggle: an urgency to accurately assign ownership. With mandatory due diligence regulations approaching, legal and compliance teams in many companies are getting involved in human rights due diligence and creating the need clarify and share ownership and responsibilities with established human rights teams. The answer to whether human rights or compliance teams should have responsibility over their company’s human rights due diligence program is of course that they both should. Corporate human rights teams will continue to advance and implement robust human rights due diligence processes, while compliance teams will play a critical role in ensuring those processes align with evolving regulations.
New Regulations as a Floor, not a Ceiling: Discussions in Geneva were dominated by the advent of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence regulations. Companies within – and outside – the scope these laws, such as the German Supply Chain Act, are scrambling to align with new requirements, while trying to prevent a check-the-box approach to take hold. Meanwhile, civil society groups are working to ensure that the regulations have teeth and force much needed meaningful improvement. This coming year, it is essential that we work together as a field to ensure that the regulations establish a new floor for all companies, without mandatory due diligence requirements lowering the ceiling by driving a check-the-box approach to respecting human rights. And as companies face the increasingly real possibility of a patchwork of slightly varied national-level requirements around the world, the opportunity to create a global framework to drive consistency will continue to gain appeal.
Environment and Human Rights: The human rights and environmental agendas continue to merge, both at the global and local level. In Geneva, environmental issues were a common thread in nearly all discussions, covering topics as wide ranging as the human rights implications of a just transition, indigenous peoples’ rights, the importance of biodiversity to the realization of human rights, and the grave threat to the safety and security of environmental activists around the world. As companies build new or advance existing human rights due diligence efforts, it is critical that environmental impacts – locally and globally – are considered alongside and through the human rights lens, as forthcoming regulations are increasingly mandating.
A Pivotal Moment for the Field: There was a palatable sense at the Forum in Geneva that what got us here is simply not going to be enough moving forward. A sense that we need to rethink key aspects of corporate human rights management – due diligence, responsible sourcing, reporting, and engagement to name a few – to start driving the kind of step-change progress that’s been too elusive so far. At Article One, many of our clients with the ambition to lead, companies who have joined the chorus of voices pushing for more stringent regulations, are not planning to stop at mere compliance. They are looking to lead and innovate, to be a positive force in the effort to advance business respect for human rights. As we prepare for a new regulatory regime, tackle pressing human rights challenges around the world, and work to accelerate a just transition, this is the moment to reinvent what it means for a company to respect human rights.
Coming back from the UN Forum I am energized going into the holidays and the new year. With some of our more advanced clients, we are exploring exciting and promising new frontiers in human rights, business ethics, and in responsible product design, while we continue supporting other companies on their first steps towards robust human rights due diligence or meaningful stakeholder engagement. The current state of business and human rights feels promisingly different, and I am hopeful that we will meet this pivotal moment as a field.
To learn more about our services and initiatives in human rights, responsible innovation, regulatory alignment and sustainability, you can get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.