Add a bookmark to get started

22 December 20226 minute read

Postcard from Geneva: United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights

People as an Entry Point for conducting Human Rights due diligence

The 11th United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights (“the Forum”) took place in Geneva from 28-30 November. Undoubtedly the world's largest annual gathering on business and human rights, the Forum saw in attendance over 2000 participants from governments, international organizations, trade unions, civil society, communities, lawyers, and businesses, although business representation was limited on that occasion. It was, however, a real opportunity for some: the Forum provides a global platform for engagement on challenges and opportunities to advance global corporate respect for human rights.

So what was the focus this year?

This year’s Forum focused on the topic, Rights Holders at the Center: Strengthening Accountability to Advance Business Respect for People and Planet in the Next Decade. Against a backdrop of a changing legislative landscape many sessions gave a sense of impetus, and touched on the main trends in the field of business and human rights, including the growing momentum for mandatory human rights due diligence laws and human rights in ESG investing. Most of the conversations focussed on the critical need to listen to, take in account and meaningfully engage rights-holders (workers, local communities and indigenous peoples, human and environmental defenders) in policy making and in corporate operations, and those of their supply chains, including in the design of remedial mechanisms1.

Where have we got to so far?

Participants took stock of the first decade of the implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the “UNGPs), otherwise known as the “Protect, Respect and Remedy framework”. Undeniably, the UNGPs have led to significant progress by clarifying the responsibilities of businesses with respect to human rights and reminding States of their obligations to protect against human rights abuses, including by business enterprises. The concept of corporate human rights due diligence as described by the UNGPs has gained significant traction across the globe and has considerably influenced normative creation, with human rights due diligence laws gaining momentum at the regional and national levels in Europe, Australia and North America and normative initiatives emerging in the Global South.  

As members of the UN Working Group on BHR put it: “One of the most remarkable developments of the last ten years is the growing understanding of the need for legal requirements based on the UNGPs. Going forward, it is essential to make emerging mandatory requirements effective and develop regulatory options that work in all markets, while complementing these efforts with a full “smart mix” of measures to foster responsible business that respect human rights”.

Human rights is no longer a ‘good to have’ but a business imperative. Expectations of stakeholders in relation to human rights are changing. Consumers want to know whether the products they buy are sustainably and ethically made.  With the proliferation of legally binding human rights reporting, human rights due diligence requirements and torts liability laws, the management of human rights risks has clearly shifted from CSR, procurement and operations, to legal departments. Human rights have become a legal issue and a Board priority.

What do Companies need to address?

Companies are expected to do the right thing with UNGPS as the guiding standard, informing legislative change, and so should expect to adhere to UNGPS in anticipation of the direction of travel. UNGPs expect the following, including:

  • Mapping their value chains and knowing their suppliers;
  • Identifying and assessing actual and current human rights risks through ongoing and meaningful consultations;
  • Integrating the findings of the human rights impact assessment into internal and external systems of controls;
  • Taking actions to prevent and mitigate risks, including by exercising leverage to mitigate the impacts where the business is not able to directly control them;
  • Establishing non-judicial grievance mechanisms in line with the effectiveness criteria set out in the UNGPs; and
  • Tracking and reporting on the effectiveness of the responses.

In practice, that means putting in place internal systems of controls to prevent modern slavery, including forced labor, from occurring; seek ways to uphold international labor standards (appropriate working age and working hours, fair wages, right to form and join unions) while abiding national laws; ensure that Free, Prior and Informed Consent is obtained prior to land acquisition and maintained throughout projects life cycles and that human rights and environmental defenders can exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of reprisals.

What is the direction of travel?

In our experience advising multinational corporations on human rights issues, many companies are backing regulatory developments and absolutely want to do the right thing. Large corporations have been coming together to identify ways to protect civil freedoms and human rights defenders2.

Considerable challenges remain, however.

Facts speak for themselves. In 2021, 200 defenders across the globe, including indigenous leaders, were killed for protecting their lands. In the words of Osako Okai, UN Assistant Secretary General, “21 million people are victims of forced labor. Violence and retaliation against human rights defenders and indigenous people is on the rise. Gender pay gaps remain common practice and in some places women make 30% less for equal work… however remedies remain weak and inaccessible”.

There’s still a long way to go. One of the reasons is that rights-holders are not sufficiently at the centre of the due diligence process, participants reported. States and businesses alike have a responsibility to listen to, consider, and meaningfully engage rights-holders. States everywhere are positively obliged to respect, protect, and fulfil rights, including through policy tools, as outlined by human rights treaties and those non-derogable peremptory customary norms known as jus cogens ('compelling law'), to ensure that right-holders are effectively protected.

Human rights due diligence is not solely a reporting exercise: it is an iterative process. It requires a shift away from traditional risk management strategies to a focus on rights and perspectives of those who may be affected and adversely impacted by the operations of the company.  In other words, this is not a tool to assess risks to the business, protect brand and reputation but one that is meant to prevent, mitigate and remedy adverse human rights impacts on affected stakeholders.

As we enter the festive season and precious family time, this timely Forum has reinforced the need to understand that people are at the centre, and stakeholder engagement is key. It has also led us to believe that there is likely be an increasing focus in measuring adherence to the UNGPS and enabling compliance with the legislative developments.


1 see The Overlooked Advantages of the Independent Monitoring and Complaint Investigation System in the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Model in US Agriculture | Business and Human Rights Journal | Cambridge Core
2 Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders (