I’m just back from a few days in Geneva, where I moderated a panel at the 3rd annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. I met some interesting people—Mo Ibrahim, the African telecom billionaire, who is now a prominent philanthropist, and Ambassador Keith Harper, a lawyer and advocate for Native Americans who is the US representation on the UN Human Rights Council–and learned a bit about business’s involvement with human rights issues around the world.
Traditionally, of course, governments have been entrusted with the job of protecting human rights. But in the last decade, human rights activists have drawn business into the fray. Yahoo was excoriated for providing information about a Chinese dissident, Shi Tao, who was then sentenced to a 10-year prison term. Internet service providers have had to wrestle with censorship issues around the world. Meantime, pressures on retailers and brands to improve factory conditions in their supply chains put them in the position of enforcing labor laws in poor countries, including China, where governments failed to do that job.
Several years ago, the UN asked Harvard law professor John Ruggie to draw up a set of principles to guide businesses on human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed by the UN in 2011, and this week’s forum was intended, in part, to figure out how to further advance those principles. About 2,000 people from governments, NGOs and business attended.
Alas, like many UN events, this one was stilted. CEOs and activists alike droned through prepared speeches suffused with platitudes and generalities. (One exception: Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, who was terrific.) With the support of some excellent UN staff people, I tried as a moderator to bring things down to earth and to provoke some honest conversation, but I didn’t succeed as well as I had hoped to.
But the forum stimulated my own thinking about the roles of governments and business when it comes to human rights. The Guiding Principles are careful to define those roles—governments, it says, should “protect” human rights and business should “respect” them—and the intention is clearly to limit the role of business to those places where they have influence, notably their operations and supply chains. But discussions at the forum (and elsewhere) blurred those distinctions.
That led me to write a story for Guardian Sustainable Business suggesting that that we may be asking too much of business. Here’s how it begins:
Scan the headlines about modern day slavery in Qatar, forced labor in Uzbekistan, a ban on trade unions in Swaziland, a draconian anti-gay law in Uganda andwidespread economic and social discrimination against women – as well asmillions of children who are abused, neglected or exploited – and it is hard to argue that global corporations are being asked to do too much to protect human rights.
And yet as the number of human-rights demands placed on business – and particularly on global companies with supply chains in poor countries – continues to escalate, there’s a risk that governments will be let off the hook. After all, governments are obligated, if not always willing or able, to protect human rights.
This is one of the themes that arose at this week’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, an annual meeting that attracted about 2,000 people from business, government, labor groups and nonprofits to the sprawling Palais de Nations compound in Geneva. The meeting comes three years after the UN endorsed a set of guiding principles on business and human rights, which define the private sector’s responsibilities in broad terms.
One of the difficulties for companies taking on the responsibility of protecting human rights is that the definition of the term “human rights” is infinitely expandable. The UN says it includes labor rights, gender rights, children’s rights, gay rights, cultural rights, freedom of expression, the right to food and water, land rights, indigenous people’s rights, the rights of development and self-determination, all of which are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. One panel at this week’s conference pondered the question: “Does the world need a human-rights-based convention on healthy diets?”
It’s no wonder some companies duck and hide what they are doing to protect human rights.
In retrospect, I wish had noted the distinction in the guiding principles between government’s obligation to “protect” and business’s to “respect.” Still, if human rights activists and the UN hope to win broader adoption of the principles, particularly in the US, where anything having to do with the UN is met with skepticism, people need to be clear about what they are asking of business. It may be that when it comes to human rights, the most important job of business is to get governments to do their job.
You can read the rest of my story here.