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UN forum told that halting business involvement in human rights abuse may require stepped-up laws

A general view of the high-level meeting of the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
A general view of the high-level meeting of the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights.

UN forum told that halting business involvement in human rights abuse may require stepped-up laws

Addressing the largest global forum to date on the impact of global business on human rights, the United Nations human rights chief today called on delegates to focus on a potential need for heightened legal standards when it comes to deterring “business involvement in gross human rights abuse.”

“Responsible business means acting with respect for human rights, reflecting the fact that long-term business prospects are tightly coupled with society’s well-being,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told almost 1,000 participants from 85 countries attending the gathering in Geneva, which began on Monday and ends Wednesday.

Delegates are considering ways to encourage the implementation of a set of globally accepted ideas enshrined in the UN-backed ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,’ which outline international standards for preventing and addressing the risk of negative human rights impacts linked to business activity.

While Ms. Pillay said the Principles recognize that “responsible governance requires the adoption of adequate regulatory and policy frameworks” to counter business-related human rights abuses, she added that enhancing legal standards “may be necessary” at national, regional or international levels.

“There is a particularly pressing case for such legal developments when it comes to business involvement in gross human rights abuse,” Ms. Pillay said.

The gathering marks the first high-level meeting of the Forum on Business and Human Rights, which will meet annually, and brings together governments, national human rights institutions, business associations, companies, non-governmental organizations and UN bodies.

Its bid to disseminate the Guiding Principles comes after the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed them last year, and established a five-person Working Group of experts to advance their implementation.

Opening the Forum, the gathering’s chairperson, John G. Ruggie, described the Guiding Principles as the “culmination of six years of extensive consultations, research, pilot projects, bilaterals in capitals, visits to company operations and neighbouring communities, together with contributions by hundreds of individuals and groups around the world.”

“The idea that business enterprises might have human rights responsibilities independent of legal requirements in their countries of operation is relatively new, in large part a by-product of the most recent wave of globalization,” Mr. Ruggie added.

For the chairperson, the unanimous endorsement of the Guiding Principles signalled that the time had come for a more global approach to the question of business involvement in human rights abuses.

“The international community has determined, and everyone present in this room would agree, that sovereignty can no longer serve as a shield behind which governments are allowed to commit or be complicit in the worst human rights violations,” Mr. Ruggie said.

“Surely the same must be true of the corporate form,” he added as he urged delegates to “let that be affirmed authoritatively, and remove all doubt.”

While Mr. Ruggie said that governments were increasingly targeting corporate-related human rights abuse beyond their jurisdictions through laws with “extraterrestrial effects,” he said national courts appear “not to share a consistent understanding” when it comes to applying international standards.

“These (instances) may arise in areas where the human rights regime cannot be expected to function as intended, such as conflict zones or similar sources of heightened risk, and typically the allegations involve corporate complicity in acts committed by related parties,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Ruggie called for “greater legal clarity” for victims and companies alike, adding that “only an inter-governmental process can provide that clarity.”