Takeaways UN Forum Business and Human Rights

Takeaways UN Forum Business and Human Rights

Last week, I attended the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, a huge, yearly event with a growing number of participants up to 2,500 this year, from business, government, civil society, UN and research institutions. It was a three day conference with many speeches in 60+ sessions. Some takeaways I would like to share.                                                        

Redouble our efforts

Just to begin, where do we stand? Currently, we are in the fifth year of implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the global standard of what businesses must do to embed respect for human rights in their operations and value chains. Some progress has been made, but still a lot has to be done. Prof. John Ruggie stated during the opening session, we have to redouble our efforts and we have to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts to make globalization work for all. As we see for example in the recently published report of the Dutch Association of Investors for Sustainable Development (VBDO), only 18 of the 60 interviewed companies in the Netherlands commit to the OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.


Access to remedy for people who have been adversely affected by business operations is critical. The UNGPs provide for clear criteria to ensure the effectiveness of operational level grievance mechanisms. In practice, still many challenges are being faced. Often these mechanisms do not function properly. In the session, strong advice has been given to companies to not draft these mechanisms at their headquarters, but in the local context, close to and with the affected communities. Civil society organizations can play an important role, in assisting and empowering communities to protect their cultural and communal rights through peaceful dialogues and negotiations between communities, public authorities and private sector, as ICCO for example is doing currently in the Indonesian province of Riau.

Reach out to SMEs

In the last session, a clear message has been given with regard to the role of SMEs. The UN Working Group, the international community, we all have to reach out to and support SMEs to meet their responsibility to respect human rights. SMEs are the backbone of economies and a large provider of jobs. Despite the fact that they are an important player, SMEs have been largely neglected in the debate about their responsibilities in this respect. They often do have a strong commitment to human rights but often challenge a lack of resources or are not sure about their obligations. In our organization we also see the struggle of SMEs to catch up and therefore we are now piloting Dutch SMEs in the agro-sector, active in an international chain, to guide them into the UNGPs and make principles more practical applicable for this sector. The next phase will be piloting several SMEs in the southern countries.

Just watch this…

Why do we need these gatherings yearly in Geneva? Just watch this

It shows that we still have not learned enough of the Rana Plaza drama. We, states, corporates and civil society have to speed up to meet the responsibility and duty to protect and respect human rights, to create decent work and income, without forced and child labor and unsafe working conditions. Events like these are needed to share best practices, to urge states to show leadership, to call on companies to do due diligence, and to hear the voices of affected communities being moved from their ancestral lands and of human rights defenders being threatened; to hold each other accountable. 

Author Femmy Bakker
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