This week, the United Nations held the 3rd annual Forum on Human Rights and Business in Geneva (Forum). The Forum is intended to provide a global platform for the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of principles endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 that establish a framework of standards on the “responsibilities of States and businesses for preventing and addressing business-related human rights abuse.” The Guidelines include a set of thirty-one principles that are underpinned by three interrelated pillars:
- the State duty to protect human rights,
- the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and
- the right of victims to access an effective remedy.
At the closing session of the Forum, panelists highlighted areas of achievements and also noted that implementation challenges of the Guiding Principles persist. The Forum reported on a growing number of states taking real steps to implement the Guiding Principles, including through the development of National Implementation Plans on business and human rights; identified how corporations and business actors are taking practical steps to respect human rights; and noted that the Guiding Principles have been adopted by the World Bank and OECD, among others.
Fueled in part by the June 2014 Human Rights Council Resolution that called for the establishment of an open-ended intergovernmental working group within the Human Rights Council, “to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises[,]” the closing session of the Forum was overshadowed by debate on whether to pursue a legally binding instrument on human rights and business. Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International, among others, called for a binding international agreement to set forth corporate obligations and state duties to comply with human rights. Such an agreement, she said, ensures that companies would be held accountable for human rights abuses and would enshrine the duty of states to protect human rights. Responding to arguments that the negotiation of an overarching binding agreement would take too long and detract from current efforts and advances in the field, Gaughran cited to a number of key treaties in effect today that met the same opposition in their early iterations. Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations in Geneva echoed the essential need for a binding treaty indicating that it would facilitate the ability of states to guarantee human rights, ensure legal remedies for citizens, and fill gaps left by the Guiding Principles.
Notably, John Ruggie, the Harvard professor who crafted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, in his closing remarks, rejected calls for an international binding treaty stating that the negotiation of an international treaty would undermine the broad state support that has been achieved since the Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles. Furthermore, he emphasized that an overarching agreement would be inadequate to address the bundle of divergent issues that are included under the label of business and human rights. Finally, Ruggie cautioned the road ahead, noting that many of the home countries where the largest transnational corporations are domiciled, such as China and South Africa, will complicate future negotiations by placing significant conditions on certain key issues. And even then, to Ruggie, it’s uncertain if such countries would ever ratify such a treaty.
It was clear at the close of the Forum, this debate would continue when the intergovernmental working group within the Human Rights Council commences discussions of this topic at its next session in February 2015.