United Nations Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum, Asia-Pacific
Day 1 | 20 September
The adoption of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011 proved to be an inflection point in advancing responsible business behavior and corporate accountability. The UNGPs established a global, authoritative framework for States and businesses to prevent and address business-related adverse impacts on human rights, including those relating to labour rights, gender equality, children’s rights, conflict, and corruption, as well as collective challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation, gender equality, conflict, corruption and among others.
Since 2011, various governments have developed national action plans on business and human rights (NAPs) outlining their strategies to promote responsible business practices. In the Asia-Pacific region, Thailand, Japan and Pakistan formally adopted their stand-alone NAPs in 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively. Other countries are currently in the process of developing NAPs, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal and Viet Nam.
In recent years, there has also been a strong push to realize the so-called “smart mix of measures” by moving from voluntary towards mandatory initiatives, notably around human rights due diligence. Mandatory human rights due diligence legislation has been adopted or is in development in various European countries. Moreover, the European Commission recently published a proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence which envisages European Union-wide obligations for businesses to address their adverse human rights and environmental impacts. Similarly, the United States and other jurisdictions are passing or implementing legislation that prevents the import of goods produced with forced labour. These and other mandatory measures can have far-reaching implications for the region. And although none of these standards, policies and legislations are perfect, they reflect the progressive evolution of responsible business concepts into more durable norms.
Indeed, while the uptake of responsible business practices by businesses has been modest and uneven, in some instances shifting business attitudes can be observed. Ongoing conflicts provide a case in point, where some multinational corporations have attempted to exit conflict-affected markets in a responsible manner and disassociate themselves with their linkages to or involvement in gross human rights violations.
At the same time, a degree of scepticism remains among affected rights holders and civil society actors about the real-life impact of top-down strategies and measures to promote responsible business, in effect spotlighting the need for meaningful participation of rights holders in State and business-led initiatives. The 3rd UN Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum in June 2021 reflected on this need as well as the deeply rooted vulnerabilities and inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for women, children, informal workers, migrant workers, displaced persons, refugees, older persons, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders. It further highlighted the need to view the crisis as an opportunity to drive meaningful change reflected in concrete policies at the national level. The global Covid-19 pandemic has reversed hard-fought progress on various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across the Asia-Pacific region, including SDG 8 on decent work, SDG 5 on gender equality, and SDG 10 on reduced inequalities, among others. Similarly, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global emissions need to peak by 2025 if global warming is to be kept below 1.5°C. To ensure climate justice and address the triple planetary crisis, States and businesses must step up climate action before ecosystems fail. Sadly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres recently cautioned that “[s]ome government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another.” In addition to these and other challenges, rights holders face additional adverse impacts related to shrinking civic space, harassment and threats against human rights defenders, corruption, informal employment and corporate capture of processes and institutions designed to improve the lives of rights holders.
Thus, while the uptake of responsible business by a range of different actors in recent years is encouraging, much more is needed to make a difference in the daily lives of people who disproportionately face adverse impacts of business activity. Against this background, the 4th UN Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum provides an opportunity to reflect on the “levers of change” at our disposal and how they can be harnessed to strengthen corporate accountability and responsible business.
The Forum aims to:
Take stock of progress and discuss challenges in promoting responsible business practices in the Asia-Pacific region, and explore lessons learned;
Reflect and build on the lessons learned to scale up progress on responsible business and showcase innovative strategies to that effect;
Promote collaboration and networking among a wide range of stakeholders, including rights holders, governments, businesses and industry associations, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations, trade unions, human rights defenders, academia, lawyers, and journalists.