By Michael Quayle, Thomas Voland and Emily Holland
This week, members of Freshfields’ Global Business and Human Rights team are attending and presenting at the sixth UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. First held following the launch of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) in 2011, the conference provides global corporations, governments, CSOs, human rights activists and other stakeholders an annual platform to explore and discuss initiatives concerning the role of business with respect to human rights.
The focus of this year’s forum is the so-called “forgotten pillar,” or Pillar III of the UNGP, which addresses the need for states and business to ensure access to effective remedy for human rights abuses. Scheduled sessions concern developments in government policies and regulations (e.g., the French Duty of Vigilance Law), adoption of National Action Plans on business and human rights, how corporations are operationalizing respect for human rights in practice, as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the protection of human rights defenders, and opportunities and barriers to securing justice and redress for affected individuals.
Select takeaways from today’s sessions are as follows:
Increasing interaction between Legal and CSR teams Some companies are increasing the interaction and dialogue between their Legal and Corporate Social Responsibility/Human Rights groups (including, for example, introducing internal cross-business secondments). This reflects growing awareness of the importance of responsible business generally, and the necessity of involving lawyers in managing companies’ strategic and reputational risks, particularly in initiatives involving human rights. Increased discussion allows companies to better comply with a wider range of internal and external stakeholders.
Transparency is critical Avoiding false or misleading statements in human rights policies, processes, and other public representations is crucial. Updates must be robustly verified to ensure that companies adhere to their public commitments.
Responsible advertising Companies’ advertising strategies are increasingly under scrutiny from a human rights perspective. Some companies are diverting advertising spend away from publications which are not editorially aligned with their stated ethical priorities, and others are adjusting the content of their advertising to communicate a positive message (e.g. of diversity and inclusivity).
Focus on complaints procedures Several sessions focused on the opportunities and challenges associated with both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms in human rights cases, including those involving a cross-border element. Potential procedures whereby the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights could receive and discuss complaints by both states and businesses was touched upon, including structural complaints against policies or norm-based grievances.
Access to remedy in the digital age The rise of Information Communication Technologies, the Internet, and the gig economy have prompted questions with respect to what appropriate remediation of corporate misuse of personal data entails, especially in countries where governments fail to adhere to data privacy laws.
Proposed “Geneva digital convention” In response to mounting cyber-attacks by nation-states, a group of tech companies has initiated discussion on a cyber parallel, or supplement, to the Geneva Convention that would commit nation-states to avoid committing cyber-attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, and to cooperate with the private sector in preventing or responding to attacks, where relevant.
We will be blogging from the Forum throughout the week. For individuals attending the conference, Freshfields will be presenting on the role of lawyers in human rights litigation and corporate human rights impacts on Wednesday at 8:15 a.m., and on our blog at 10:15 a.m.