Addressing the human rights impacts of business activities towards binding global standards

8th Human Rights and Business conference, Thailand, Sept 2018
8th Human Rights and Business conference, Thailand, Sept 2018
Helen Tugendhat

Addressing the human rights impacts of business activities towards binding global standards

A landmark declaration in 2010 brought human rights abuses by business activities into the spotlight. Since 2017, we have seen significant advances in legislating requirements for human rights due diligence in key markets, and in 2018 negotiations began on a possible Binding Treaty on business and human rights. The recent 8th Conference on Human Rights and Business highlighted exciting partnerships between human rights institutes and civil society in driving forward this change.

Please also see:

The 2010 Edinburgh Declaration

In the 2010 Edinburgh Declaration the global community of National Human Rights Institutes (NHRIs) committed to increasing their attention to human rights abuses caused by business activities around the world. This landmark Declaration highlighted the role NHRIs can play in monitoring violations of human rights by corporations, as well as handling complaints against companies and mediating between them and the victims of these human rights abuses.

International Human Rights Obligations – the UN Guiding principles

Global attention to the human rights impacts of businesses continued in 2011 with the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establishing the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework for understanding how international human rights obligations apply to company actions. In this framework, the responsibility of companies to respect international human rights law and to provide remedy in the event of human rights violations was outlined.

Building consensus to combat rights abuses

These two key events led to the convening of the Bali Conference on Agribusiness and Human Rights in Southeast Asia in late 2011. At this conference, representatives from the NHRIs in Southeast Asia, indigenous peoples organisations, local communities and major agro-commodity companies came together to discuss how to ensure increased attention to the human rights implications of the massive expansion of industrial agriculture in the region.

The Bali Declaration highlighted the impact of the expansion of agribusiness in the region on the livelihoods and ways of life of indigenous peoples and local communities. The signatories pointed to the importance of self-determination for communities and peoples, and the need for protection of their rights to land, food and cultural survival. Participants also explored the roles of NHRIs, of governments and of business in delivering this protection.

In Bali, a consensus emerged around the work needed to make human rights obligations binding on businesses as part of efforts towards a more just and sustainable agriculture in Southeast Asia, focusing on collective efforts to address specific cases, support for complaints and mediation roles for NHRIs, support for companies making specific commitments to respect human rights and to explore and test judicial and non-judicial remedies for violations. A network was established among the participating organisations, communities and institutions, committed to work together on these actions to create real change in the way businesses operate in Southeast Asia.

A strengthened commitment to defending human rights

A series of conferences between 2012 and 2018 have continued to strengthen this network, addressing themes such as access to remedy, revision of out-of-date national laws to better protect local tenures, potential use of jurisdictional approaches, migrant and labour violations in agribusiness, extra-territorial obligations of businesses and governments, and continuing the focus on addressing specific, local cases each year.

The 8th Conference on Human Rights and Business

The network continues its work today, with the 8th Conference on Human Rights and Business hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2018. Positive developments at the global and national levels are visible and welcomed. Negotiations on a possible Binding Treaty on business and human rights began in 2018. Significant advances have been seen in during 2017 and 2018 in legislating requirements for human rights due diligence in key markets including France, the UK and the Netherlands. EU action to regulate imports against deforestation and human rights targets continue to be negotiated, with global campaigns increasingly focused on stronger market-side regulation. National courts in Southeast Asia are showing more willingness to act, with the Thai Courts accepting a case involving land-grabbing by a Thai company in Cambodia.

At a local level, the network has called for protection of the last ecological frontier in Palawan against land grabs, supported calls for suspension of ill-judged state sponsored development in Sabah, and has fostered information sharing between participants of the conferences.

Towards binding obligations

Commitments towards stronger collaboration within the network point to a need for NRHI’s to engage in the Binding Treaty discussions, and to continue to use National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights as a framework to improve national level action. Three key methods of achieving this were agreed for collaborative action in 2018-19:

  • Supporting negotiations towards a binding treaty
  • Research on land acquisition laws to underpin national legal reforms towards compliance with international human rights law
  • Ensuring new and existing national action plans on business and human rights address land rights

Continued research on national legal reforms is also needed, with land acquisition laws in Southeast Asia targeted for deeper analysis. Existing legal reform processes in Indonesia show great promise and collaboration by network partners in this will continue.