Current issues in Business and Human Rights: report from the 2018 Annual Forum in Geneva

By Karin Buhmann.

‘Building on what works’ was the key topic for the annual Forum on Business and Human Rights that took place in Geneva on 26. to 28. November. With more than 2000 participants, the Forum has become the world’s largest gathering of practitioners, academics, civil society, governments and just about anyone else with an interest in the field of business and human rights. The sessions were streamed online, making the Forum accessible also for those not able to attend in person in Geneva.

Now in its seventh year, the Forum is organized by the United Nations (UN) as a multi-stakeholder event to take stock of and advance the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and to discuss other issues related to this fast-evolving field. The UNGPs build on three ‘pillars’:

  1. The state duty to protect human rights against infringements caused by companies;
  2. the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and
  3. enhanced access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights infringements.

Each year’s Forum has a special topic, and the Forum is organized to seek to involve relevant stakeholders in bringing relevant issues, dilemmas, challenges and opportunities to the foreground. It is intended to help building knowledge of how companies, governments, civil society and others can help advance business respect for human rights.

Prior to the 2018 topic, for example, the 2017 Forum addressed the issue of ‘access to remedy’, and previous Forums have addressed, for example, leadership and leverage in regard to human rights in the global economy. Some topics are recurrent at the Forums, such as the role of institutional investors, and the implementation and effectiveness of human rights due diligence.

’What works’ and how human rights impact on the economies of companies

In line with the ‘What works’ topic, this year’s Forum featured a special ’snapshot’ track. Here, a large number of individual companies and managers took turns to share their experience on their work to advance the corporate respect for human rights in their own organisations, in their value chains, and with stakeholders. Other tracks featured, for example, the connection between climate change and business responsibilities for human rights; and debates on the human rights implications of the tech-industry, ICT and artificial intelligence. Reflecting other debates during the past year, human rights issues highlighted in the ICT and AI contexts included risks to privacy, the freedoms of communication and information, free and fair elections, and jobs. Increasing attention is also paid to human rights and sports, for example in regard to mega-sporting events and related construction projects, such as those for the 2022 FIFA football world cup in Qatar.

Not surprising, from an academic perspective one might sometimes wish for a broader discussion that could engage more with the strategies adopted and help challenge managers to further deepen their efforts to respect human rights. However, the ‘snapshot’ presentations along with the many other sessions jointly did confirm the extensive and important implications of human rights for many core business activities and areas: the Forum’s tracks and debates confirmed that human rights issues are increasingly significant in relation to business communication, due diligence and risk management, human resources and labour, supply chain management, finance, public procurement, non-financial reporting and beyond.

For example, the expansion on mandatory non-financial reporting in the EU and elsewhere that has taken place in recent years is strongly connected to and related to the development of the risk-based due diligence approach that is at the core of the UNGP. However, there is a persistent risk that regulators’ emphasis on formal disclosure after an activity takes place, results in too limited focus on preventing harm before or during an activity.

Academic networking

Aiming to benefit from the presence of a large number of individuals from regions around the world, several academic events take place at the Forum or, particularly, back-to-back with it. Advancing teaching and research on business and human rights was the topic of a half-day meeting at the University of Geneva, featuring a multi-disciplinary group of scholars and universities from many countries.

Organised by the CBS-hosted BHRights Intiative for Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching on Business and Human Rights (BHRights), a global research workshop gathered 25 scholars presenting their research on various topics of business and human rights. The presentations covered a range of very diverse topics, such as for example what national institutional factors condition business respect or dis-respect for human rights, corporate reporting on business and human rights in various countries, dilemmas around socially responsible green transitions, the rights of nomadic Sami reindeer herders, and the prospective international treaty on business and human rights.

UN Forum 2018 – Roundtable: Academic Networks in Conversation with Stakeholders (KB).

For the first time, the Forum organisers decided to include a specific session for various academic networks on business and human rights. Jointly organized by some of these networks, the session prioritized interaction with stakeholders from business, civil society and other organisations to stimulate mutual collaboration and understanding of the connections between theory and practice of business and human rights.

The 2019 Forum is currently scheduled to take place in late November 2019. Registration is expected to open in mid-2019.

The Author

Karin Buhmann is professor at Copenhagen Business School where she is charged with special responsibilities in business and human rights. Appointed by the Danish Minister of Commerce upon nomination by Danish Civil Society, she is also a member of the Danish National Contact Point to the OECD set up under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Professor Buhmann was a member of the Danish delegation to the 2018 UN Forum.