UN Forum on business and human rights


ISHR intern Helene Sturny gives her overview of the 5th Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR events and training on business and human rights. 

(Geneva) – The UN hosted its 5th annual Forum on Business and Human Rights from 14 to 16 November focusing on Leadership and Leverage.

Marking the 5th anniversary of the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the aim of this year’s Forum was to embed ‘human rights in the rules and relationships that drive the global economy’.

Much work remains to improve access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses, so it was a welcome opportunity to encourage various stakeholders to step up efforts to protect those in particularly vulnerable situations, including human rights defenders.

The agenda of this Forum demonstrated the increasing recognition by States, business, and international human rights mechanisms on the need of specific protection for human rights defenders and on the role they play in securing business respect for human rights.

The Forum gathered diplomats, business representatives, law firms, investor organisation, UN bodies and mainly activists, victims, and other civil society actors from around the globe. It provided a space for defenders to voice their concerns, to network and debate.

Throughout the Forum, ISHR had an information stand to share material about the promotion and protection of human right defenders.

ISHR was also involved in hosting three events.

How many more killings & threats? Solutions to protect human rights defenders working on extractives in Latin America

After a very moving opening speech of Laura Zuniga Cáceres, daughter of the murdered indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, States, activists, NGOs and businesses explored concrete proposals regarding how to protect human rights defenders in which to demand corporate respect for human rights.

Ben Leather, of Global Witness, explained that there were 122 land and environmental rights defenders killed in Latin America for demanding corporate accountability around natural resource extraction since 2015. This year, the trend has continued to worsen, ’63 defenders were killed in the first six months’ Mr Leather said.

States have a responsibility to protect human rights defenders from adverse corporate impacts. Recognising that ‘there is a lot a Government can do, but more needs to be done’, Remy Friedmann of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs presented the Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders as a key tool to prevent and to respond to attacks against human rights defenders.

Similarly, Omar Jeronimo of an indigenous association, was in the opinion that States could have discourses that favour human rights and that they could strengthen the institutional framework of other countries where their national companies were operational. States’ were also called to protect defenders by investigating intellectual authors of the crimes.

As for investors and companies, they were called to take more proactive actions to cease human rights harm. Investors must show more leadership, they need to asses if defenders are safe and to cease investment if it isn’t the case. Panellists noted cases of companies defaming human rights defenders in the media, and using funds to corrupt State officials in order to secure project approvals. Accordingly, businesses and investors should change their policies and practices to end harassment, persecution and retaliation on human rights defenders. ‘Respect of human rights must have primacy to any economic rights’ said Mr Jeronimo.

How companies can advocate for the protection of human rights defenders and broader fundamental freedoms

At this event, companies interacted and examined what they could do in practical terms to advocate for the protection of human rights defenders in countries that suffer from weak rule of law and a growing clampdown on critical voices and marginalised communities.

As our colleague Sarah M Brooks said on the panel, companies should show leadership, ‘they have the influence and the resources to combat the global trend on civil society crackdown’.

Brooks explained that civil society and business share the same goal of upholding the rule of law, transparency and combating corruption.

‘Without a strong independent civil society, the rule of law and good governance disappears and business suffers’ said Ms Brooks, ‘commitment from businesses to the safety of human rights defenders should be the norm, not the exception’,

The companies on the panel were of the view that business had moral and economic imperative to support human right defenders and called for a stronger business movement to stand up for the rule of law and its defenders.

Daniel D’Ambrosio, of DLA Piper, explained that a restricted civil society and a lack of rule of law was a serious risk for business..He also highlighted the valuable role of human rights defenders in advising and assisting business on human rights compliance.

The S Group demonstrated that companies are beginning to speak out against attacks on human rights defenders by having supported a human right defender, Andy Hall, in front of the Bangkok South Criminal Court.

‘Businesses can and should intervene with governments and courts to protect human rights defenders’ said Lea Rankin of the S Group.

Companies are increasingly recognising the essential role civil society and human rights defenders play in promoting the rule of law which is crucial for business. It is imperative to strengthen this trend for businesses to work with respect of civil society and to contribute to decrease threats to human rights defenders.

National Action Plans: Perspectives from the ‘Global South’

While the majority of National Action Plans have come from European States, the discussion focused on the progress, challenges, and the lessons learned from the process of developing National Action Plans in States in the ‘Global South’. 

Civil society organisations and National Human Rights Institutions on the panel advocated for inclusive, rights-based and consultative National Action Plans.

As ISHR’s Michael Ineichen explained, there is an increasing recognition by progressive business on the need to consult, engage and protect human rights defenders, but defenders working on corporate accountability are still among the most endangered, a fact that should be recognised in NAPs.

The development of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights provide an opportunity for addressing the risks defenders face. The protection of human rights defenders must be at the core of the process and in the substance of National Action Plans.

‘NAPs on Business and Human Rights should not just consolidate existing measures, but include incentives and support for businesses to better engage and protect human rights defenders and civic spaces’ said Mr Ineichen.

In that regard, ISHR and International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) have launched previously this year a comprehensive practical guide on how States should consult human rights defenders in the development of NAPs and ensure that these plans include protection for defenders. The guide intends to bridge the gap between international standards and practical reality.

Workshop training on business and human rights

Parallel to the Forum, ISHR welcomed nine human rights defenders from Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines and Zimbabwe for a short training in Geneva.

The aim of the training was to provide them with direct support and advice in carrying out international advocacy in regards with business and human rights at the UN level to effect change on the ground back home. Participants learned about how to interreact in a strategic way with the UN Human Rights Council, its Special Procedures and Universal Periodic Reviews, as well as the Treaty Bodies.

The trainees had the opportunity to meet with staff of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and of the Special Rapporteur on human right defenders.

They had the opportunity to advocate with the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and diplomats from the from a range of countries to discuss challenges faced by human rights defenders and explore solutions to these problems the UN intergovernmental Working Group developing a binding treaty on business and human rights. These meetings permitted the human rights defenders to put their skills into practise, advocating on their issues and build networks for their future international advocacy. 

Many of the events held at the forum can be viewed online here.