Last week representatives from Freshfields attended the fifth annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. First convened following the publication of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the UNGPs), the forum assembles global businesses, governments, NGOs, human rights activists, and other parts of civil society to discuss the evolution of the business and human rights landscape, share ideas, and build a common understanding on the way forward.

A key theme of this year’s conference was “leadership and leverage” – at both the state and business level. The forum was introduced by John Ruggie, former UN Special Representative on Business & Human Rights, who called for redoubled efforts in achieving socially sustainable globalization. Professor Ruggie focused on the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals (17 goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals and form a universal exhortation to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all) and the UNGPs. He concluded by describing respect for human rights as living “at the very core of the people part of sustainable development…[and] key to ensuring a socially sustainable globalization, from which business stands to be a major beneficiary.”

The tone for the forum was set by, among others, Mark Wilson (CEO, Aviva plc), also speaking in the opening plenary session, who entreated corporates to embrace the principles of sustainable business by putting “enlightened self-interest” at the heart of their strategy. He articulated the activist disruption, consumer backlash, investor withdrawal and pressure from employees and shareholders that businesses increasingly face when they fail to live up to society’s expectations on human rights. He observed that increasing corporate transparency – fuelled by new legal reporting requirements being introduced around the world and initiatives like the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark – was likely to turn human rights performance into a “competitive sport.” 

Some key themes that played out across the remainder of the forum include:

Increased business presence and participation: Whilst NGOs dominated the demographic of the early forums, there has been a marked uptick in business presence in recent years. Forum organizers quoted 24 percent of attendees as hailing from the business community. This most recent gathering was notable not only for the wide range of businesses in attendance, but also for the preponderance on many panels of corporate delegates – including CEOs, general counsel and other senior figures. Multiple (and even majority) business representation on panels on topics such as effective due diligence, corporate liability, community engagement, land rights and access to remedy led to a rich debate and valuable exchange of concrete, practical ideas for the implementation of the UNGPs. 

Focus on the role of financial institutions: Many events concentrated on how financial services firms, which may be linked through the capital they provide to often severe human rights impacts, can further the protection of human rights. The debate touched on the importance of banks, institutional investors, insurance companies and others in embedding human rights principles in their own businesses, and also highlighted firms’ ability to drive other actors toward compliance with international human rights norms. Delegates noted in particular the power of financial services providers in working with their clients to exercise leverage in supply-chain situations where ordinary contractual or commercial levers may not be available. Two growth areas cited were the need to engage rights holders more actively and to establish reporting mechanisms.

Embedding human rights in bilateral investment treaties: Other panels focused on international investment treaties and the investor-state dispute mechanism. The consensus was that international investment agreements should ensure that states retain adequate ability, through policies and regulations, to protect human rights while simultaneously extending necessary investor protections. Delegates discussed alternative models for achieving the same result, highlighting Brazil’s Agreement on Cooperation and Facilitation of Investments, which focuses among other things on preventing disputes through discussion between parties on a state-to-state basis and by employing government-appointed ombudsmen.

Role of lawyers: One final theme of note was the attention focused on the role of lawyers from law firms and in-house legal departments, and the implications of the UNGPs on their work. This focused on embedding and operationalizing respect for human rights within firms and helping companies to manage their human rights risks. Lawyers are also key to ensuring the right individuals are in the room and understanding the issues in play before entering into contracts with business partners, suppliers and others. For additional details on and statements from the forum please visit here.