Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Human rights: a forum in Geneva

It is apt that the third United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights took place over 1-3 December in Geneva, marking the 30th anniversary of the gas leak disaster in Bhopal.

On the face of it such a gathering may appear to be a grand eyewash: little more than a self-important global talkfest for bureaucrats, businesses—and their sharp handmaidens in law and public relations. Perhaps a budget-justifying annual ball for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which flowed from a toothless exercise, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that was formally adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

After all, the UN’s Protect, Respect and Remedy framework that backed such guiding principles is little more than finger-wagging. The principles mention the “States’ existing obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms"; the role of business enterprises “as specialized organs of society performing specialized functions, required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights"; and the need for rights and obligations “to be matched to appropriate and effective remedies when breached".

It’s a re-stating of the dazzlingly obvious in the mellow tones of UN bureaucratese: there cannot be human rights in business unless businesses behave, and governments ensure they behave. That is certainly true in the Indian context. Here complicity of business and government to ignore or dilute the rights of project-affected communities, among other malpractices, is a continuing scandal that foments unrest and has implications for internal security.

Even so, the UN forum makes eminent sense. The absence of power to prosecute cannot always be equated with irrelevance. A decade ago a global forum such as this was inconceivable. Now it is already in its third edition. It’s recognition, as with the adoption of UN’s guiding principles by that global body that such issues matter, will increasingly matter.

Moreover, each such gathering brings together a clutch of important people, important statements, and release of research data and trends, a reaffirmation of the religion of business and human rights; one in which ethics increasingly signal hassle-free earnings, as opposed to the time-honoured and piratical, but increasingly litiginous, endeavour of earnings over ethics. The UN forum is today a sort of Davos to discuss and disseminate matters of human rights and business, a place to be seen, yes, but more importantly, also to be heard.

A virtual wagonload of useful documents in the areas of human rights, community rights, child rights, labour laws and liability, among others, were made available at the forum (accessible at ohchr.org/hrc and business-humanrights.org)—several of which I shall discuss in future. The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights released a useful tool to track use of child labour, Children’s Rights in Impact Assessments. Unicef separately shared guidelines on engaging stakeholders in the area of children’s rights. The UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative launched the Human Rights Guidance Tool for the Financial Sector, a useful companion to the initiative of the Thun Group of banks, a multinational endeavour of some of the biggest names in investment banking to reduce liability on account of customers’ iffy human rights practices.

Activist-documentation was also unveiled, such as one by the UK-based Peace Brigades International on behalf of what it termed “human rights defenders working on land and environmental issues". It is titled Recommendations for States and Multilateral Bodies—a response to alleged lending and oversight malpractices by multilateral agencies.

For my money, the highlight was the keynote statement at the forum on 2 December by Nestlé SA’s chief executive Paul Bulcke. For the past year beset by accusations of labour wrongdoing directly or by associates in some of Nestlé’s globalized farming and procurement operations, Bulcke’s reiteration of human rights was surely as introspective as it is welcome. “It is in the actions, on the ground, where respect for human rights is visible," he stated. “In the countries where companies operate, where they have their people working for them, where they source their raw materials and link up with societies; where they produce, where they sell their products and services. That’s where human rights are visible and lived."

If ideas of responsibility, accountability, legal and financial liability, and the danger of diminishing of corporate image remain explicitly and implicitly on the agenda of such a gathering; which aids dissemination of human rights in the spheres of business, governance, activism and judicial redress; and tunes law, it is surely work in progress. And if it is work in progress, it works.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear. Hold. Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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