The 12th session of the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights 2023: What just happened?

Anna Triponel

December 3, 2023

Jodie Tang and Anna Triponel

“The decisions we make today will determine the course of humanity in the decades to come.”

This call to action by Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in the opening plenary session of the UNAF, highlights the critical role that we each have to play to ensure that businesses, in consultation with rightsholders and other stakeholders, take a rights-respecting approach to business.

This year’s Forum - centred on the theme “Looking at the past, anticipating the future” - focused on stakeholders coming together to share the challenges and opportunities they have faced with implementing the UN Guiding Principles, and how we can build on work done to move towards effective rights-respecting business action in the future. What is key to this discussion is centring rightsholders, such as Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights and Environmental Defenders, in the process and outcome, as well as taking action on the interconnections between human rights, climate change and other crises.

The interconnection between human rights and climate change was firmly placed on the Forum’s agenda, with many sessions focused on this interlinkage. The following are some of the common themes we gathered from the discussions.

Meaningful engagement with rights-holders throughout the human rights due diligence (HRDD) process is key, including in the development of solutions and remedies

  • The human rights impacts of climate change was made abundantly clear, with examples of how this interconnection manifests for people, and therefore businesses, in practice. We heard how many low-lying island States and communities are already experiencing the effects of sea-level rise, which has forced them to leave their homes, families and livelihoods behind. Actions taken by companies to mitigate, and adapt to, the risks of climate change can also impact human rights. For instance, we heard that climate-smart agriculture programmes aimed at reducing methane emissions in rice cultivation can lead to unintended consequences for women and families working on, or living around, the rice fields. The clearing of trees and ponds in these fields can destroy food varieties for women and families and impact their right to food and health. And of course, impacts are not felt equally. Marginalised communities, such as Indigenous Peoples and women, are disproportionately impacted by climate change due to existing vulnerabilities they experience, including inequality and poverty. Despite the fact that they have contributed the least to climate change, they are on the frontline of efforts to mitigate and adapt to the climate and biodiversity crises.
  • Approaches and mechanisms were discussed as being conducive to enabling an environment that allows meaningful rights holder engagement. These included: (1) Approach all engagement with rights holders with dignity and respect; (2) Listen to, and amplify, the voices of impacted rights holders on the ground, not only to understand how they are impacted by virtue of business activities, but also how climate action can have unintended and adverse human rights impacts; (3) Consult with rights holders throughout the lifecycle of the human rights due diligence process in the identification of potential or actual human rights risks and impacts and the development of effective solutions and remedies to tackle these issues. The latter was emphasised as being particularly important because it has been lacking in companies’ responses to date; (4) Invest in long-term, collaborative and meaningful engagement with rights holders, including workers and local communities; (5) Invest in workforce and communities to build management capacity so that they can eventually manage projects themselves; (6) Recognise that communities are not homogenous. For example, migrant workers in Indonesia may not experience the same issues as migrant workers in Bangladesh and we should not assume as such. Solutions must reflect these nuances and be shaped by the rights holders themselves; and (7) Know the audience you are speaking with and adapt your approach accordingly. For example, many in the Global South are already implementing HRDD practices but do not couch them in this language. Adapt the language and narrative you use that would best resonate with the target audience. Translate rights (for example, the right to life) to issues (for example, the health and safety issues) that would resonate with those working at the operations and site levels.

Collaboration between buyers and suppliers, especially small and midsize enterprises (SMEs), is key in the just transition

  • There was a general consensus that companies should not punitively pass on all their HRDD obligations onto their suppliers, particularly SMEs and smallholder farmers, who have limited resources and capacity to absorb the costs of conducting robust HRDD practices. Rather, companies should partner with suppliers to ensure that they do have the resources to implement robust HRDD practices and provide capacity-building initiatives to the extent required. This also entails re-shaping business practices to enable suppliers to be incentivised and rewarded for their human rights respect practices - alongside the actions they take on the climate.
  • This was discussed in the context of upcoming laws and regulations, such as the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), and concerns that companies will try to cascade their responsibility to conduct robust HRDD onto their suppliers in the form of one-sided contractual terms and supplier codes of conduct. It was also acknowledged that a ‘smart mix’ of solutions is needed to tackle the polycrises. Laws and regulations alone are not enough to drive the systemic transformations required to address the root causes of these crises.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the just transition

  • The interconnections between human rights and climate change was the focus of this year’s Forum, with seven sessions focusing explicitly on this topic. You can rewatch the sessions here.
  • Companies can already start (if they have not already) to integrate a human rights lens into their business and climate strategies and build on existing policies and processes. Examples of embedding practices that companies can adopt include: (1) Assigning responsibility to boards, or other relevant senior executive committees, to oversee the companies’ linked human rights and environmental risks and impacts; (2) Embedding environmental and human rights considerations into existing enterprise risk management schemes; and (3) Implementing human rights and environmental KPIs applicable to senior leaders, as well as operational and commercial managers. As Damilola Olawuyi, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on business and human rights, aptly put it:
“We cannot fight justice with injustice.” We must not forgo the rights of people in the name of the green energy transition.

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