Impressions from Geneva

A Great Source of Information, Inspiration and Motivation

By Theresa

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva took place during 16-18 November 2015. It was my first time and, to be honest, I did not expect the forum to provide me with life-changing information: I am not an academic in the field and just started working for the German network of fair trade and alternative trading organisations. They run a campaign for a strong national action plan on business and human rights. The organisation does, however, not have the resources to pro-actively participate in the Business & Human Rights movement on the global scale.

Opening High-Level Plenary in the Assembly Hall © Danielle Kirby / OHCHR

Opening High-Level Plenary in the Assembly Hall © Danielle Kirby / OHCHR

It was curiosity which made me join the 2,300  other participants from 130 countries. One third is said to come from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), 22 percent from the business sector and 23 percent are said to be government employees. My estimate is that the remaining number stems from academia since I met many professors and researchers.


Thanks to the many professionals participating, the Forum is a great source of up-to-date information on Business & Human Rights. One can attend panel discussions teaching the basics, like the UN Guiding Principles. Or one delves right into the depth of current debates as well as issues which are hoped to become a debate in the future. The programme predominantly consists of panels. The panels include up to ten participants who present their viewpoint one after the other before engaging with the audience.

This number of panelists is often too high to allow for a productive debate because issues are spread too wide. On the plus side, most panelists are open to engage in conversations if you approach them after the official panel has finished. Even more on the plus side, there are numerous possibilities to enjoy conversations over a cup of coffee. Luckily, I attended a panel discussion which turned out to be an interactive work-shop.

There are also many side-events organised by groups like indigenous peoples’ representatives, a book launch and the launch of the Business and Human Rights Journal (BHRJ). The diversity of the programme highlights that the forum is, first and foremost, a platform to engage in conversations between actors in business and human rights who would, normally, not meet. State representatives are only one player among others. This reflects the open and engaging space which the forum creates.


It is this platform-character which renders the forum into a source of inspiration: many different people from diverging socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and relationships to human rights are brought together. I learned a lot about the diversity of the movement which is easily forgotten once you start focusing on specific issues in the field.

Most noteworthy are the demands by representatives of indigenous communities who condemn the continuing absence of access to justice. Indeed, pillar 3 (access to remedy for victims of business-related abuses) is the most neglected one of all parts of the United Guiding Principle, and most likely because of its enormous impact on the conduct of companies. If companies were liable for their actions and had to pay for the destruction they cause to the ecosystem and communities, the business model of many major business enterprises would fail: they could no longer privatise the profits into their shareholders’ pockets and channel the costs as ‘externalities’ to the public.

Workshop on Indigenous Peoples' Rights © Danielle Kirby / OHCHR

Workshop on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights © Danielle Kirby / OHCHR

The same would result from the proposed binding international treaty on business and human rights. It was inspiring to listen to Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa, the ambassador of Ecuador to the UN in Geneva. She leads the negotiations to this international treaty obliging transnational corporations to respect human rights, and described the slow and cautious progress made in the past year. Currently, the basic issues are discussed – the potential scope and content. The project is in its infancy and combines ambition with idealism. If this treaty were to become effective, it would cause an enormous shift of power.

Another very inspiring remark was made by Adriano Campolina, the Executive Director of ActionAid International. He made the point that the tax evasion conducted by companies significantly weakens states, the major duty-bearer in human rights law. If I remember correctly, he suggested all business and human rights activists should spend half of their work time fighting tax evasion and channel this new financial leverage towards human rights protection. Tax regimes are incredibly technical, but Campolina’s suggestion rings true – companies deprive all of us of huge amounts of money. This report describes the situation with tax evasion for the European Union.


It may sound corny, but there is some truth in Zig Ziglar’s words

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.”

In a nutshell: this UN Forum is an excellent bath. Human rights are tough territory and motivation is easy to evaporate. That is why meeting like-minded people, sharing the little glimpses of hope for progress and learning from each other is so central. For instance, I had lunch with Fiona Gooch from Traidcraft, a British fair trade organisation also campaigning for corporate liability and access to remedies for victims. If you are a UK citizen or resident, join more than thousand others and tell your MP why access to justice for foreign victims of corporate abuse matters.


I remain very enthusiastic about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights but, as numerous other participants, I must acknowledge that the Forum is not as inclusive as it would like to be. The location in very expensive Geneva is a big obstacle. During my research for funding opportunities, I could find one webpage listing scholarships and travel support. Unfortunately, it only covers a minority of potentially interested groups.

With this in mind, I must say: if you can take time off work and afford to travel, sleep and eat in Geneva, I wholeheartedly recommend attending the next UN Forum for Business and Human Rights 14-16 November 2016.


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