The confederacy of conscience keepers

Are meetings such as the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights worth it, beyond UN bureaucrats justifying their salaries; corporations showing off human rights and corporate social responsibility dressage?


Over 14-16 November in Geneva, several hundred UN bureaucrats, lawyers, representatives of major corporations and human rights practitioners will gather at the fifth edition of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.  Photo: Reuters
Over 14-16 November in Geneva, several hundred UN bureaucrats, lawyers, representatives of major corporations and human rights practitioners will gather at the fifth edition of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Photo: Reuters

The annual conscience-keepers’ circus is upon us again. Forgive my cynicism but whenever I hear the words ‘United Nations’ I think ‘exculpatory nirvana’.

Over 14-16 November in Geneva, several hundred UN bureaucrats, lawyers, representatives of major corporations and human rights practitioners will gather at the fifth edition of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. They will deliberate on this mouthful of an agenda: ‘Leadership and Leverage: Embedding human rights in the rules and relationships that drive the global economy’.

In 2015, the theme was ‘Tracking progress and ensuring coherence’. A year earlier it was another doozy: ‘Advancing business and human rights globally: alignment, adherence and accountability.’

This year’s stated focus is on states needing to lead by example, businesses needing to lead by example, corporate accountability, and protection and remedy for victims of human rights abuses. With some words changed in conference themes and individual sessions it is always the stated focus. The template is provided by the guiding principles on business and human rights that the UN’s human rights council endorsed in 2011, built on the precept of “protect, respect and remedy”.

Are such meetings worth it, beyond UN bureaucrats justifying their salaries; corporations showing off human rights and corporate social responsibility dressage; lawyers shimmying up to offer consultancy to businesses and wronged communities alike; and non-governmental organizations with an eye on benefactors? Yes, because this is the Davos of business and human rights.

Even five years earlier there was no globally aggregated approach in a world where transnational businesses ride with near-impunity on national policies of governments on every continent.

I’d love to know how this session will pan out: “Human rights & model clauses between Government security forces and companies”. Or this one: “Protecting indigenous peoples in a business context: national implementation mechanisms.”

As a long-term advocate of the grounded reality that businesses naturally favour earnings over ethics—which some activists still do not fully understand, so it weakens their approach—I’d be delighted to see what lessons will be driven home in the two backroom sessions, as it were: “How accountants can assure respect for human rights and be enablers for change” and “How lawyers can help companies to better identify and respond to human rights issues”.

As a person frequently labelled ‘anti-national’ by those of the fundamentalist right-wing (different from fundamentally right), and as a highlighter of the absolute horror of ways in which land is acquired in India, I would put my bleeding heart on this one: “Tainted lands: the human rights implications of corruption in land deals.” ‘Go straight to Jail, do not pass Go, do not forget to pay $200 million, do not forget to apologize to shareholders and citizens’ would be my bet, but let’s see what the UN forum has in store.

The theme “New Models” offers the slightly tired phrase “supply chains”—and the corporate cop-out that tends to pass blame down-the-line rather than up-the-line—may offer some ways ahead. But this is probably the bravest session tag I’ve heard for a UN-led conference: “How many more killings & threats? Solutions to protect human rights defenders working on extractives in Latin America.” For added twist, add India.

Even with all this in the works, it is vitally important to keep in mind just how fragile the situation still is—and how massively stacked in favour of governments and businesses. Any remedial action is dependent on enlightened national courts that deal empathetically and non-politically on matters of human rights. The International Criminal Court has just added to its repertoire “national crimes” like “illegal exploitation of natural resources” and “illegal dispossession of land” (See: Prosecuting governments and businesses) but it’s nascent. A UN-monitored attempt, “an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights” is in shambles.

At the 2014 Forum, Nestlé SA’s chief executive delivered a sermon on human rights while his corporation was embroiled in accusations of supply-chain violations of such rights. In 2015 executives of Coca-Cola Co., H&M, Statoil ASA, Unilever Plc and Rio Tinto Group and dozens of others participated and spoke at the Forum.

Several of these businesses were directly and indirectly associated with human rights violations ranging from violent interactions with communities in project areas and massive environmental degradation, to poor working conditions in supply chains, and manufacturing discriminatory products.

So this is the Forum, warts and all. More on it in November.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, will now run on Thursdays.

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