Listen Up: the Key to 'Speeding Up and Scaling Up' Business and Human Rights Reforms

Two phrases were consistently heard at the Fourth Annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, which took place in Geneva from November 16 to November 18. The first - "speeding up" - was used to describe the pace at which change, in both the private and public sectors, needs to take place. The second - "scaling up" - was used to describe the types of actions that would bring the discourse of business and human rights to larger or different arenas. One additional term should have been added to this list - "listen up." To make sure the business and human rights community is speeding up and scaling up appropriately, we must ensure that those who are affected by the activities of businesses and those that have first-hand knowledge of what is and is not working are given heightened prominence in the conversation.

Speeding Up

It's true that recent years have seen increased domestication and implementation of protections for human rights in relation to business activity. From legislation and proposals on human rights due diligence in France and Switzerland to new procurement directives pertaining to human rights issues in the United States to efforts to develop National Action Plans on business and human rights from Chile to Malaysia, there is momentum.

However, in this race to embed stronger human rights protection and respect in law and practice, there is also concern about proliferating bad practice. Such is the worry with the National Action Plans agenda, which has been pitched by some as contradictory to the solidifying of normative standards through a treaty process. While the NAPs movement is picking up speed, with some 40 countries either having already developed or in the process of developing NAPs, assessments conducted by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) of six out of the seven existing NAPs have revealed significant weaknesses. Countries are not coming to the table with strong, action-focused commitments and are instead using their NAPs as tools to highlight existing practice. This is inadequate. If NAPs continue suffer in this arena, the effort of so many to participate and produce them will have been futile. Instead, the call for international regulation will be more pronounced, as the alternative of State implementation continues to fall so far short of the mark. Countries have to do better, and they must do it faster. Simply speeding up the proliferation of NAPs, without ensuring that they include clear, strong, and effective action points, is counterproductive. We need to make sure that what we are speeding up is actually effective in the first place.

Scaling Up

There is also a very clear need to bring the human rights and business discourse to other arenas and to ensure that systems of accountability are reinforced in trade, aid, development, intellectual property, and other economic regimes. Without this knitting together, we risk creating silos of impact amongst a larger sea of inaction. The opportunities created by the upcoming Paris climate talks and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need to be seized, and principles of protection and respect need to be embedded in those arenas and mechanisms as well as those solely focused on frameworks specific to business and human rights. Further, the negotiations of trade and investment agreements need to be a major target for inclusion of social, environmental, and human rights protections. Such discussions have been operating alongside, rather than in coordination with, the human rights agenda for too long.

However, challenges towards such "scaling up" exist. Many communities of practice still view human rights as outside of their scope, and much more education needs to be undertaken to demonstrate the often deleterious effects of trade policy, for example, on human rights. This form of education could be delivered effectively by a stronger mandate for and conviction by the UN Working Group to reach within the UN system and then toward international organizations, such as the WTO, for trainings and capacity building on business and human rights.

Listening up

In order to "speed up" and "scale up" in an effective way, however, we need to get practical, clear, and concrete. This year's UN Forum was perhaps the most successful in this regard. From specific proposals being tabled on parent company liability to discussions around cascading contract clauses versus due diligence obligations in procurement contracts, the discussions narrowed in on specific solutions. This must continue, as it is a necessary vehicle for further reform in both policy and practice.

Still, in selecting concrete solutions and in deciding what to "speed up" and where to "scale up," two communities need to be given heighted importance. First, the voices of those affected by the activates of corporations must be able to share their experiences and stories, as first hand experiences must feed the actions undertaken. Second, those who have issue-specific expertise, insight, and know-how must be further brought into the conversation, be they policy pundits, procurement professionals, or prosecutors. We need to ensure we are listening to those affected, as well as those with technical expertise.

There is truth in this year's message around the need to "speed up" and "scale up" efforts to integrate, extend, and ensure human rights protections in relation to business. However, we must do so with a critical eye to the paths before us and with open ears to those who face, on a day-to-day basis, the gaps in protection we are working to close. Perhaps the best way to "speed up" and "scale up," therefore, is to "listen up."