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Insights from the UN Global Forum on Business and Human Rights 2019

In late November, Corrs representatives attended the eighth annual UN Global Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, joining over 2000 global delegates from government, business, academia, the law and civil society. 

This diverse group debated new and old concepts, explored the overarching theme of this year’s forum – ‘Time to Act: Governments as Catalysts for Business Respect for Human Rights’ – and considered how global respect for human rights can be strengthened. 

We identified the following core themes emerging from these discussions.  

  1. The link between human rights and the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs)

    There was clear recognition that realising the SDGs will not be possible without respect for human rights, and government, civil society and business must all contribute to meet the UN’s 2030 agenda.

    Given a key focus of the forum was on the role of the State in this context, speakers and delegates consistently referred to the need for governments to do much more to meet existing international legal obligations and ensure appropriate mechanisms are in place for the protection of human rights.

  2. The need for a ‘smart mix’ of mandatory and voluntary measures to drive respect for human rights by business. 

    This will be done in different ways by different countries, where a mix of mandatory and voluntary measures will necessarily be driven by the context in that jurisdiction, including existing legal frameworks. The absence of a consistent model or framework between jurisdictions will inevitably create some complexity for multi-nationals looking to ensure compliance across all operations.

    Government representatives reported a variety of different experiences developing national action plans on business and human rights (NAPs). There was also a call for government to use their own procurement processes as a lever to drive change from the top. Multi-lateral measures in the ‘smart mix’ that are on the horizon include moves from the EU to develop a global business and human rights law, and a project designed to support sustainable growth in Latin America and the Caribbean in line with UN, ILO and OECD Frameworks.

    Business representatives expressed a preference for mandatory measures to help create a level playing field for those already working hard to protect human rights in their supply chains and operations. The Australian Modern Slavery Act was held as an exemplar in the field, with mandatory reporting requirements demanding a level of engagement from regulated entities.

    In a sign of what may be around the corner, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law is studying how a ‘failure to prevent’ mechanism, to attribute corporate liability for human rights abuses, could be defined. The preferred option raised at the Forum, modelled on section 7 of the UK Bribery Act 2010, would create a civil cause of action rather than criminal liability (enhancing potential remedies for the victims of human rights abuses).

  3. The increasing focus on human rights in the finance sector and for investment policies. 

    The recently published Blueprint for Mobilizing Finance Against Slavery and Traffickingthe final report of the Liechtenstein Initiative’s Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking and an initiative of the Lichtenstein, Netherlands and Australian Governments, was promoted and discussed. This report offers a helpful practical guide to the finance sector about how to make a meaningful contribution to ending modern slavery. Representatives from Swedish and Norwegian Government Pension Funds reported on how they are driving change through responsible investment. This global trend is likely to continue to gain momentum.

  4. The intersection between human rights with corruption, climate change and gender. 

    Compelling human stories of the link between corruption and human rights and the human rights impact of climate change reminded delegates that behind the need for regulation and due diligence is the individual impact of human rights abuses. These stories highlighted how anti-bribery enforcement and human rights-related climate change litigation are being used to seek remedies for direct human rights impacts of corruption and climate change.

    There is increasing pressure on business from corporate stakeholders including investors, shareholder representative groups and civil society organisations to ensure they are fulfilling the commitments they have made in policies and association memberships. Increased scrutiny will lead to demands for enhanced accountability, which in turn will require robust compliance processes to be integrated throughout the business to facilitate transparency and accountability for all corporate stakeholders.

    Companies that want to ensure their business practices take human rights impacts into account will find that deploying tools that are commonplace in anti-bribery and corruption compliance frameworks can also provide a practical framework to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights risks.

Drawing it all together

One thing everyone could agree on is that there is no silver bullet that will deliver global respect for human rights. Every country, every context and every business will need to think about their own operating environment and fit-for-purpose solutions in order to effectively ensure appropriate policies, systems and processes are in place to mitigate adverse human rights impacts. 

These efforts are not only a moral imperative, but increasingly a legal compliance issue. More and more, individual governments and the EU are requiring business to have procedures to ensure human rights due diligence is embedded in their business processes and decision-making. 

If the UN Global Forum demonstrated one thing, it is that the imperative for effective human rights compliance is building, and businesses will do well to get ahead of the curve and ensure they have appropriate processes in place. 


Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope

Head of Responsible Business and ESG

Abigail Gill

Head of Investigations and Inquiries


Responsible Business and ESG Board Advisory Corporate/M&A Employment and Labour

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