The United Nations' annual Forum on Business and Human Rights took place 16 - 18 November 2015 in Geneva. The fourth annual event, the Forum attracted around 2300 participants from business, governments and civil society (NGOs) and was marked by the highest number of business participants (22% of attendees) since the forum began in 2012. In addition to first movers such as Nestle, Unilever, Ericsson, Microsoft and BP, there was a notable growing contingent of medium size companies present. In addition, there was an increasing visibility of representatives from our region, with the president of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, representatives from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and a representative from the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games addressing attendees.
Key Highlights for Companies during the Forum in Geneva
Five years have now passed since the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) were endorsed by the Human Rights Council and a key focus of the Forum was on assessing results achieved so far in identifying, preventing, mitigating and reporting on corporate human rights impacts. Key issues raised and discussed include the following.
Repeating the mantra of "what gets measured, gets managed", speakers highlighted the cascade of legislation and standards relevant to reporting on human rights. A delegate representing the EU parliament noted that in 2017 more than 6000 EU companies will report on human rights, anti-corruption and bribery pursuant to the EU's directive on the disclosure of non-financial information . The government of France reported on the progress of proposed legislation requiring companies to prepare a human rights due diligence plan. Delegates also heard of the US government's Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements for investment in Burma/Myanmar and the reporting requirements facing any global company doing business in the UK, pursuant to the UK Modern Slavery Act. Moreover, GRI reported that of the 1400 reports in its database, one third contain reporting on human rights issues.
Corporate delegates urged the importance of ensuring that under-resourced CSR departments are not overrun with differing reporting requirements, which can detract from actually implementing programmes to improve issues flagged in due diligence. In this vein, it was noted that companies can use existing international frameworks to comply with the EU Directive (including GRI and the UN Guiding Principles), and that the UNGPs Reporting Framework also allows cross-referencing with existing standards. GRI itself released a document, Linking G4 and the UN Guiding Principles , which?highlights the connections between the GRI G4 Reporting Guidelines (G4) and key concepts of the?UNGPs.
NGO Global Witness cautioned, however, that in their view GRI standard does not sufficiently cover the requirement under the UNGPs that companies to ensure people who believe their rights have been abused have access to a remedy. She stressed that where companies are operating in areas where legal options for citizens are weak, they should have in place operational-level grievance mechanisms.
Other key topics relevant to companies
Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 12.6
Goal 12.6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (the successor to the Millennium Development Goals) is "Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle." GRI, the UN Global Compact and the WBCSD have released the "SDG Compass " to guide companies on aligning their strategy with the SDGs.
Where laws conflict with human rights
Leading companies, including GE, stressed that there is now an expectation that companies should join up together to advocate for changes in the law when existing laws do not support a company in trying to respect human rights. NGOs and the ILO would like to see this extended to the concept of "living wage", which provides that companies should pay a wage for full-time work that allows people to lead a decent life considered acceptable by society, even where legislative minimum wage requirements are lower.
There was a relative consensus that whilst companies must respect all human rights, there must be some focus, in policies and due diligence processes, on salient issues that particularly affect the business because of its type of activities or the regional context in which it operates.
Why we were there
Finally and most importantly, the delegates were reminded of the importance of governments protecting citizens from corporate human rights abuses, and of companies respecting human rights: for example, concerning land rights alone, 43 people were recorded in 2014 as having been murdered after protesting the removal of their lands, often when such land was sold by their government to corporations.
We will elaborate on some of these issues in detail in later editions of the newsletter; please let us know if any particular issue interests you or if you have any other requests in relation to topics for future editions.
Ashleigh is responsible for thought leadership, research and client services as Executive Director of EY CCaSS. She sits on the UN Global Compact's Human Rights and Labour Working Group and drafted the UNGC's 2015 Guide on How to Develop a Human Rights Policy. Ashleigh is a lawyer qualified in Australia and England & Wales, and when based in Tokyo specialised in international arbitration and anti-trust for her Japanese clients, as well as advising governments on public international law. She has a Master's degree in Sustainability, Development and Peace from the United Nations University, as well as degrees in law and Japanese language.
EY Japan Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS) assists our clients to respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate. Project members have taken leadership roles internationally in the human rights field, speaking at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights and supporting the OHCHR. Ashleigh and Keiichi represent Japan on the UN Global Compact (NYC) Human Rights and Labour Working Group and EY Japan has a partnership with the Japan local network. Masa has participated in a number of negotiations on international human rights standards and instruments at the UN as a representative of Japan. Our team members have a breadth of practical experience in areas of human rights, including;
- Human rights policy drafting
- Human rights due diligence
- Human rights e-learning
- Stakeholder engagements
- Human rights-related disclosure and reporting
- Human rights education and awareness raising