Business/human rights forum urges improved access to remedy

04 December 2017

Geneva last week hosted a substantial gathering of more than 2,000 participants from civil society, governments, trade union activists, human rights defenders, academics, and members of the private business sector, who gathered for the three-day 6th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights (27-29 November).

This year the Forum focused on access to remedy, one of the three main pillars of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, often referred to as the “forgotten pillar”. According to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (WG), “the need to make progress in translating the third pillar of the Guiding Principles from paper to practice is perhaps the most burning issue in the current business and human rights agenda”. Such dialogue, the WG stressed, “needs to be action-oriented and aimed at identifying concrete commitments from actors in positions to advance change and overcome existing barriers to remedies.”

Despite some good initiatives and implementation efforts in the last few years, the gap between rhetoric and reality for victims of human rights abuses in the context of business violations remains wide. For the WG, what is now needed is to ‘walk the talk’ and discuss, share good practices and initiatives (whether judicial or non-judicial, whether state or non-state driven) by which victims of human rights violations and human rights defenders can access remedy. It also pointed to the need to overcome the ‘trust deficit’ amongst diverse actors which “hinders dialogue and collaborative problem-solving among governments, civil society, businesses and victims about how to realize the third pillar of the Guiding Principles”.

The Forum also tried to “explore how the business and human rights lens can help tackle some of today’s greatest human rights challenges, whether linked to the workplace, global supply chains, domestic economies or particular sectors; and provide a transformative vision of the role of the business sector in achieving sustainable development”.

Topics addressed over the three days included a discussion of new LGBTI standards for businesses that translates existing guidance to help companies promote diversity and inclusion; the gender-specific impacts of extractive activities; protection of human rights defenders working on business and human rights; and the use of non-judicial grievance mechanisms to resolve conflict and achieve effective remedy.

There was also a parallel discussion on the perspectives from stakeholders in the Americas on access to remedy. One of the issues highlighted by indigenous groups was the difficulty in to collecting evidence of human rights impacts. Robert Guimaraes, president of FECONAU (Regional Indigenous Federation of Ucayali), put it thus: “environmental impacts can be measured with drones. Social impacts are difficult to measure, but we feel them”.

Regarding non-judicial mechanisms, there was detailed discussion of the use of the National Contact Point (NCP) under the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Corporations, increasingly used to secure redress. Since 2011, around 50% of all complaints handled by the NCPs have concerned human rights impacts, and 60% of all cases brought have resulted in agreements. 48 countries have allocated resources to forming NCPs.

In pursuit of its attempts to become an OECD member, Peru is one of the countries to have made advances here. Visiting Peru last summer, the WG on Business and Human Rights acknowledged Peru´s efforts in this direction. But in order to be a genuine tool to access remedy, the NCP needs to be independent; it currently resides within Proinversión (which comes under the MEF). At the Forum, the OECD announced a campaign to improve effectiveness of NCPs, highlighting the importance of their impartiality and the need to give them sufficient resources to carry out their mandate.

The closing session included speeches from representatives of the business sector, government, and civil society. WG member Dr Surya Deva outlined the next steps needed in implementing the UN Guidelines and promoting good and effective national action plans to this end.

Liliana Hernández, chair of the indigenous peoples’ caucus at the Forum, gave a poignant speech about the intrinsic relationship between these people and mother earth, and how this was under threat. She pointed to the day-to-day struggles indigenous groups face when trying to defend their rights. She also made specific recommendations, namely:

  • that the UN Guidelines be harmonised with the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights and ILO 169;

  • that we look more at prevention mechanisms, not just remedies after the harm has been done; and

  • that states create effective mechanisms to protect indigenous human rights defenders.

The private sector was represented by Sir Moody-Stuart of Global Compact, who supported the notion that respect for human rights is part of doing business and that the implementation of the three pillars of the UN Guidelines should be addressed next year during the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. For its part, the OECD recommended that civil society should take greater advantage of the NCP, while recognising the need to increase resources and encouraging greater engagement with stakeholders.

Closing the three-day event, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, urged all to “stand up for human rights” and “push back against the toxic tide of hatred and xenophobia”. No-one, he said, “will remember us for our silence” and “strong civil society, due process, equality and justice” are the “elements that enable economic empowerment.”

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