Business says Human Rights are not negotiable!

The 3rd annual Forum on business and human rights is underway as I write.  About 2,000 people from business, governments and civil society have come to the UN in Geneva and the discussion is riveting!

Mo Ibrahim, the Chairperson of the Forum opened up the session with good advice to all participants. The UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) on business and human rights is a great achievement, said Dr Ibrahim but now “the time has come to deliver”!

Annual processes to measure progress, monitoring systems , publication of results are necessary now and  this needs to be carried out by an independent , credible organization funded by governments, business and civil society.   “Business has a role to play to support and uphold society and civil society must drive change”- we were off to a good start.

Business and People

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, talked about the importance of business serving society not simply taking. “Business can flourish where Human Rights are upheld” he added.  Fairness in the workplace, opportunities for women, and inclusive business are important to this man and to his company.  We heard about the collaboration between Unilever with RAFI  to enhance corporate reporting on Human Rights.

“Clone Paul Polman” begged the second speaker, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary International Trade Union Corporation. Ms Burrow spoke passionately about the difficulty of the world’s workers today, the increasing insecurity of employees in the formal economy and the huge number of people employed in the informal economy.  And then there are the 30 million workers who are enslaved, how can this be?

The importance of the UNGP was highlighted by the General Secretary as “the most significant instrument in over 30 years” she said.  Rights to join trade unions, right to bargain collectively, the rights of workers in supply chains, were highlighted. Finally, Ms Burrow discussed the importance of  National Action Plans of governments on business and human rights which are being worked on by many countries now.

Global outlook for Business and Human Rights- themes and trends

A group discussion on the global outlook for business and human rights with regards to key themes, trends and challenges led to discussions on sustainability reporting getting away from the CSR space – too philantrophic, it was felt.

The Norwegian Human Rights Ambassador Kees van Baar talked about the Norwegian National Action Plan and the importance of security, prosperity and Human Rights. Government policy coherence between different ministries, the role of the state, the fact that the idea of the responsibility of corporations – due diligence- needs to be clarified for business and for states were all discussed by Mr van Baar.

The education of small and medium sized enterprises, the importance of the local United Nations Global Compact offices in this regards, the role of judiciary, it was evident that we must all play our part to ensure change happens.

Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestlè rounded off this group discussion and, like Paul Polman from Unilever, he emphasized the importance of business conducting business the “right way” in accordance with national law, international law and fundamental values and principles.

Mr Bulcke added  that Nestlè favors long term thinking, they are open to diversity and respect is important for this Swiss company.  “Human Rights are about doing, how we behave, everyday, everywhere”  he said “our actions on the ground- Human Rights are not negotiable”. We agree.

Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor



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