Insights from the 12th United Nations Forum
During the 12th United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, a diverse assembly of stakeholders, including representatives from NGOs, activists, companies and government officials, gathered in what was known as Room XX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The conference deliberated on the current state of human rights, recent progress and future endeavours. A compelling call was made to cease separating the climate crisis from the human crisis, emphasizing their interconnected nature. Against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, participants acknowledged the intricate links between these challenges, paving the way for discussions on how businesses can play a transformative role in crafting sustainable solutions. This affirmation underscored the vital role of decisive action in ensuring a just and sustainable climate transition.
Human Rights, state and violations
The conference delved into today’s global human rights landscape, where a triad of challenges – political conflicts, climate change and technological advancements – looms large. The interconnection between climate and human crises underscores the imperative of a just transition. Notably, the supply chain emerged as a focal point of discussions, revealing itself as a risk hotspot referencing human rights abuses. Indigenous communities, that safeguard 80% of remaining biodiversity1 , bear the brunt of human rights violations, facing challenges such as discrimination, land-grabbing and resource exploitation, and are the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Strikingly, communities, already heavily impacted by climate change, are doubly burdened and victims of climate transition initiatives which involve large-scale infrastructure and renewable energy projects on their lands and intensified mineral extraction. The forum emphasized the significance, yet limited practice, of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) rights, calling for companies to engage with indigenous communities. The shift in mindset from a moral consideration to a strategic allocation of resources is crucial for fostering responsible and sustainable business practices.
Additionally, the complexities of human migration, especially in response to climate change, bring to light significant gaps in legal and policy frameworks. The deepening crisis of forced labour and child labour poses a threat to men, women and children and is primarily fuelled by private economic interests. We estimate that today 50 million individuals are victims of modern slavery2. A closer examination of workers’ rights within this context reveals pressing concerns, including freedom of association, access to remediation and fundamental workplace rights. Even in the most developed countries, workers face obstacles in safeguarding their rights and negotiating fair working conditions. The forum emphasized the need for robust protection mechanisms, access to justice and remediation for workers subjected to human rights abuses, including those stemming from climate-induced changes.
Future regulations and solutions
Celebrating the decade-long journey of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the forum reaffirmed the global standard. Endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the UNGPs provide a comprehensive framework, “Protect, Respect and Remedy”, outlining the responsibilities of states and businesses regarding human rights. International Labour Organization and OECD3 standards were also discussed, emphasizing the imperative of strengthened due diligence, particularly concerning indigenous populations. The necessity for heightened transparency and risk assessment of supply chains was also underlined, illustrating the pivotal role businesses can play in respecting and safeguarding human rights.
In contemplating the future, the forum resounded with a call for innovative solutions and concerted efforts to address the intricate nexus between business activity and human rights. Discussions highlighted the efforts of the Open-ended intergovernmental working group (OEIGWG) to elaborate a “legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises”. The Working Group on Business and Human Rights is poised to deliver a report to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2024, which will explore the alignment of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) practices in the financial sector with the UNGPs.
At the close of the forum, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights concluded with “I urge you to put human rights at the centre of all climate decision making at COP 28 and beyond.”
By Claudia RAVAT, ESG Analyst, La Française AM
1 The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation, Claudia Sobrevila, The World Bank, May 2008
2 Global Estimates of Modern slavery report, International Labour Organisation, September 2022
3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development