Thursday, December 12, 2013
Last week I attended the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. The Forum was designed to discuss barriers and best practices related to the promotion and implementation of the non-binding UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which discuss the state’s duty to protect human rights, the corporation’s duty to respect human rights, and the joint duty to provide access to judicial and non-judicial remedies for human rights abuses. This is the second year that nation states, NGOs, businesses, civil society organizations, academics and others have met to discuss multi-stakeholder initiatives, how businesses can better assess their human rights impact, and how to conduct due diligence in the supply chain.
Released in 2011 after unanimous endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council, the Guiding Principles are considered the first globally-accepted set of standards on the relationship between states and business as it relates to human rights. The US State Department and the Department of Labor have designed policies around the Principles, and a number of companies have adopted them in whole or in part, because they provide a relatively detailed framework as to expectations. Some companies faced shareholder proposals seeking the adoption of the Principles in 2013, and more will likely hear about the Principles in 2014 from socially responsible investors. Several international law firms discussed the advice that they are now providing to multinationals about adopting the Principles without providing a new basis for liability for private litigants.
Although the organizers did not have the level of business representation as they would have liked of one-third of the attendees, it was still a worthwhile event with Rio Tinto, Unilever, Microsoft, Google, Nestle, Barrick Gold, UBS, Petrobras, Total, SA, and other multinationals serving as panelists. Members of the European Union Parliament, the European Union Commission and other state delegates also held leadership roles in shaping the discussion on panels and from the audience.
Some of the more interesting panels concerned protecting human rights in the digital domain; case studies on responsible investment in Myanmar (by the State Department), the palm oil industry in Indonesia and indigenous peoples in the Americas; the dangers faced by human and environmental rights defenders (including torture and murder); how to conduct business in conflict zones; public procurement and human rights; developments in transnational litigation (one lawyer claimed that 6,000 of his plaintiffs have had their cases dismissed since the Supreme Court Kiobel decision about the Alien Tort Statute); mobilizing lawyers to advance business and human rights; the various comply or explain regimes and how countries are mandating or recommending integrated reporting on environmental, social and governance factors; tax avoidance and human rights; human rights in international investment policies and contracts; and corporate governance and the Guiding Principles.
As a former businessperson, many of the implementation challenges outlined by the corporate representatives resonated with me. As an academic, the conference reaffirmed how little law students know about these issues. Our graduates may need to advise clients about risk management, international labor issues, corporate social responsibility, supply chain concerns, investor relations, and new disclosure regimes. Dodd-Frank conflict minerals and the upcoming European counterpart were frequently mentioned and there are executive orders and state laws dealing with human rights as well.
Traditional human rights courses do not typically address most of these issues in depth and business law courses don’t either. Only a few law firms have practice areas specifically devoted to this area- typically in the corporate social responsibility group- but many transactional lawyers and litigators are rapidly getting up to speed out of necessity. Small and medium-sized enterprises must also consider these issues, and we need to remember that “human rights” is not just an international issue. As business law professors, we may want to consider how we can prepare our students for this new frontier so that they can be both more marketable and more capable of advising their clients in this burgeoning area of the law. For those who want to read about human rights and business on a more frequent basis, I recommend Professor Jena Martin’s blog.