The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights needs to be more inclusive, improve business engagement

Smoke Stack from Sugar Factory in Belle Glade Florida

Photo: Kim Seng

By: Katharine Valencia

Program Officer at DPLF

Last month, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) hosted the 4th annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. This massive event attracted upwards of 2,300 attendees from civil society, government, and the private sector. The three-day Forum provides the opportunity for the diverse BHR community to engage with fellow practitioners, activists, and people on the front lines of the most pressing BHR issues today. This year’s theme was “Tracking Progress and Ensuring Coherence,” and discussion topics included the pending treaty on BHR, access to remedy for victims, and land rights. (full list of panels and events held during this year’s forum; most are available for streaming here ).

Aside from the generally informative and interesting nature of the panels, two problems stood out. First was the drastic underrepresentation of individuals from Latin America. While many human rights defenders and indigenous community leaders attended the forum, few presented on official panels. However, not to be left out of the discussion, Latin American activists were vocal during question and answer sessions following formal presentations. For example, during a panel on land rights, a representative of an indigenous community in Honduras spoke about her country’s increasing militarization and its failure to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Another woman from a Brazilian indigenous community brought a native fruit from her territory as a symbol of her wish for her sacred land to be protected for her children and grandchildren against encroaching corporations. Both of these interventions were met with rounds of applause from the audience. In the coming years civil society and OHCHR should work together to ensure that more Latin American, particularly indigenous and campesino, representatives are invited to the table to share their perspectives on official panels.

The second, inverse, problem was the minimal participation of private sector representatives in discussions and Q&As. While business leaders presented on many official panels, they were often silent during the more informal opportunities following such panels. For example, during the high-level plenary session, a moderator specifically invited business community members to join in the discussion and address specific issues such as those raised by persons negatively affected by business activity – without any takers. Next year, more business leaders should commit to going beyond the presentation of prepared remarks and show a willingness to engage in impromptu dialogue, even if it means addressing controversial subjects. Otherwise, it is hard to envision how good-faith progress on BHR issues can occur.

Interestingly, just a few short weeks after the Forum concluded, a representative of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights resigned with an open letter that sent shock waves through the BHR community. Puvan Selvanathan wrote,

“The material irrelevance of ‘domestic’ or ‘multinational’, the cowardice that shrouds extraterritorial impunity and the perversion of international dispute settlements are all contrivances of state-sponsored systems that allow companies to behave badly. I find no difference in culpability between states that allow domestic businesses to abuse the human rights of their own citizens, and states that tolerate and tacitly protect multinational businesses that abuse the rights of others’ citizens.”

The former Working Group member went on to criticize the UN for its “bipolar” approach to BHR and to call for a strengthening of the legal (not merely normative) framework to ensure business respect for human rights. The impact of Mr. Selvanathan’s call to arms remains to be seen, but one suspects that its effects will still be felt at the 2016 Forum.

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