By Sudeep Chakravarti
Slowly, the seemingly moribund UN system has gathered some punch
Davos for the Damned. That’s one way to look at the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights which gets underway in Geneva on 26-28 November. An expensive, scripted circus.
Every year, since these annual forum meetings began in 2012, senior UN bureaucrats, resplendent in their toothlessness, offer speeches on human rights due diligence. Major global corporations, including some habitual human rights offenders, will send their human rights representatives—who often double as legal counsel—to present engaging faces.
Players in business and human rights, among the fastest growing niche segments in the rights space, will solicit business from such businesses. This can range from advice on how to clean up supply chains to the more glamourous matter of public relations. (And, there will actually be a few handpicked activists who compel human rights practices at the workplace, and in mining and industrial zones, in the developing world).
It’s all underpinned by the UN’s Byzantine, and sometimes a hypocritical system of diplomacy. A system in which Khashoggi-hit Saudi Arabia, which beheaded an Indonesian maid on 29 October for killing her rapist as he was raping her, sits on the UN’s Human Rights Council. As do Pakistan, Qatar and China, no slouches in human rights violations.
India will join the Council for a three-year term from January 2019. India’s election pitch to the Council—elections to fill 18 slots on the Council were held in October—read like a brochure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government. It included the slogan “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” even as many of its constituents cap a four-year run of hate speech, communal incidents, besides the pressure to dilute land-use and environmental norms to favour businesses. Naturally, none of this made it to the pitch.
Even so, the Forum is the greatest business and human rights platform in the world. None on this scale existed less than a decade ago. Here, it’s-a-start is not a cliché.
It flows from the guiding principles on business and human rights formally adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, and these are predicated on the UN’s protect, respect and remedy framework. The principles mention that 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”.
Human rights due diligence, complaints against violators, lawsuits by victims against businesses, censure and awarding of damages by the judicial systems of various countries—all of it takes place outside the UN system. At best it offers a tepid Ten Commandments-like guidance with zero oversight.
But slowly, the seemingly moribund system has gathered some punch. The UN hosts the “International Legally Binding Instrument on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights”. It’s a discussion to evolve penalties for erring business under a common globally acceptable framework. Several prominent business lobby groups have of course worked tirelessly to diminish it ever since the UN’s Human Rights Council adopted it in 2014, but the fact is: It’s in process.
What may have more immediate sting is the UN’s “Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises”. Various teams have undertaken country visits to Mexico, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Ghana and Peru, among others.
A May 2018 report on Peru listed an average of “200 social conflicts” a year during 2014–2017, “of which a majority were related to business operations in the mining (45%), hydrocarbon (10%), energy (5%) and agribusiness (2%) sectors.” These resulted in 49 deaths, and injured over 1,400 people. There were hurdles with health, environment, inadequate transparency and access to information, and the limited participation of stakeholders in decision-making processes.