The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights held its first Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights from April 19 to 20 in Doha, Qatar, bringing together governments, business representatives, trade unions, civil society organizations, affected communities, academics, and others to discuss the region’s implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“Ruggie Principles”). [OHCHR Press Release: First UN Regional Forum] The Asia Regional Forum explored serious ongoing human rights challenges in the region and potential approaches to enhance corporate due diligence and accountability with regard to respect for human rights. This event is part of a series of regional forums on the impacts of business and human rights organized by the UN Working Group, and follows the 2014 African Regional Forum and the 2013 Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Forum. The Asia Regional Forum will also inform the UN Working Group’s yearly UN Forum on Business and Human Rights to be held in Geneva, Switzerland from November 14 to 16, 2016. See OHCHR, 2016 Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights.
The Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights
The Asia Regional Forum emphasized concrete advancements and commitments by States and the private sector in upholding human rights, including for vulnerable groups like migrant workers, children, and indigenous peoples. [OHCHR Press Release: First UN Regional Forum] Members of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights recognized the growing role Asian countries play in the global economy and insisted efforts to prevent and address human rights violation by companies must be enhanced as the region grows economically. Dante Pesce, the chairman of the Working Group stated that the Forum must focus on encouraging States to develop their national action plans on implementing the Ruggie Principles and should focus on better supply chain management. [OHCHR Press Release: First UN Regional Forum]
Some participating organizations submitted reports to the Working Group, stating that the Asia Regional Forum comes at a critical time for the region, as human rights defenders working on corporate related human rights abuses continue to suffer threats, violence, intimidation, and murder in many of the participating countries, and as the 10 Member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are preparing to integrate their economies. See Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Briefing: Development for all, or a privileged few? Business and human rights in Southeast Asia (2015). They warn of perils to human rights posed by increased transnational commercial activity in conjunction with the continued absence of an effective regional human rights framework to prevent, mitigate, and remedy abuses. The organizations call for enhanced protection of human rights defenders and recognition of their significant role in advancing corporate accountability. See International Service for Human Rights & Forum-Asia, ‘Rebel’ Farmers and ‘Unruly’ Employees: The Situation of Human Rights Defenders Promoting Corporate Accountability in East Asia (2016).
According to the program, through training sessions, dialogues, and sub-region specific sessions, the Asia Regional Forum focused on ongoing corporate related human rights abuses and potentials and challenges for the implementation of the Ruggie Principles. Sessions were held on such topics as enhancing corporate due diligence in promoting human rights, the rights of migrant workers, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, the human rights impacts of situation of human rights defenders in Asia, online privacy rights, improving access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses, a lack of regional National Action Plans by countries in the region, and potentials for criminal accountability for corporate human rights abuses in Asia.
Several sessions sought to explore potential approaches to corporate due diligence to address ongoing human rights abuses, such as abuses that continue in the region’s garment industry. A session on abuses in the garment industry discussed pervasive violations such as poverty-level wages, excessive hours for workers, gender discrimination, repression of trade unions, poor working conditions, and child labor in the region’s textile manufacturing sector. The session offered opportunities for various stakeholders to discuss potential actions for both corporations and governments to better ensure respect for and protection of human rights in the garment industry.
Also highlighted during the event was the issue of the adverse human rights implications of large-scale sporting events. [OHCHR Press Release: Sporting Events] The topic has been in the limelight in recent years, as outrage has grown over reports of poor working conditions and high death rates of migrant laborers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. [Guardian; CNN] John Ruggie, the author of the UN Guiding Principles, was joined by representatives from FIFA and the Qatar Supreme Committee to present his report on how human rights could be better integrated into the policies and practices of FIFA, which he hopes will serve as an example for other global sporting corporations. [OHCHR Press Release: Sporting Events]
The Asia Regional Forum builds on the regional meetings held in the Latin America and Caribbean and African regions, and its content will contribute to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights held in December 2016 in Geneva.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
The past few decades have seen major increases in transnational commercial activity and an enhanced role of transnational corporations in global affairs, prompting the international community to assess the roles and responsibility of the business sector in regards to human rights. See OHCHR, Business and Human Rights. International human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on economic, social, and cultural rights and civil and political rights establish the State as the ultimate duty bearer with regard to human rights obligations. [IJRC] However, as transnational corporations increasingly take on responsibilities historically filled by governments and as the body of information on the potential adverse human rights impacts of corporate activities grows, the international community has worked to address the need for the development of a business and human rights framework. [IJRC] See OHCHR, Business and Human Rights.
Adopted in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the current global standard for monitoring, preventing, and remedying the human rights impacts of corporate activities. The Ruggie Principles established a three pronged “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” framework which focuses on the State’s duty to protect human rights, the responsibility of corporate actors to respect human rights, and the need for access to remedy for victims of business and human rights. See OHCHR, Business and Human Rights.
Following the endorsement of the Ruggie Principles, the UN Human Rights Council established the Working Group on Business and Human Rights to oversee implementation of the Ruggie Principles and to engage with all relevant stakeholders to monitor the situation of business and human rights worldwide. [IJRC: Business and Human Rights] Also, as part of the State’s duty to protect human rights, the UN Working Group encourages States to develop national action plans on how the State will implement the Ruggie Principles and has developed materials to support States in this endeavor. See OHCHR, State national action plans.
The Working Group also oversees organization of the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights held in Geneva at the end of every year since 2012, as well as the ongoing series of the Regional Forums. The UN Forums serve as the largest annual business and human rights gatherings and host Governments, community groups, civil society, law firms, investor organizations, UN bodies, National Human Rights Institutes, trade unions, academia, and the media. See OHCHR, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.
Past Regional Forums
The Regional Forums were developed to involve a greater number of local and regional actors in the UN’s efforts to advance the Ruggie Principles. Held in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and now Asia, the Regional Forums seek to bring together all relevant stakeholders, including corporations, civil society, government representatives, and academics, to examine the region-specific approaches and challenges to the implementation of the Ruggie Principles. Discussions and outcomes of the Regional Forums then contribute to the larger UN Forums held in Geneva. See OHCHR, 2016 Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights; OHCHR, Africa Regional Forum; OHCHR, 2013 Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The African Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aisha Abdullahi, summarized the intent of the UN’s business and human rights agenda and the regional forums in 2014:
All too often have human rights concerns fallen by the wayside in the race to attract foreign investment. We have to fundamentally break with this logic and ensure that business and respect for human rights go hand-in-hand.