Key players in the business and human rights world congregate in Geneva this week for the annual UN Forum. Hard on the heels of the UN Working Group’s report, human rights due diligence is the focus of this year’s event; but a major theme emerging from the first day of the conference is the profound changes to the business landscape likely to arise from automation and the increased deployment of artificial intelligence. 

By Natalie Sheehan and Michael Quayle

This week, members of Freshfields’ Global Business and Human Rights team are attending the seventh UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. First held following the launch of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011, the conference provides global corporations, governments, NGOs, human rights activists and others an annual platform to explore and discuss initiatives concerning the role of business in respecting human rights.

The focus of this year’s Forum is on “due diligence” within Pillar II of the UNGP, which addresses the need for states and businesses to embrace the corporate responsibility to respect human rights by conducting human rights due diligence. This follows a recent report of the UN Working Group on the topic, about which we have previously written.

Key themes

In the first day of sessions at the UN Forum, key messages articulated by participants included:

  • At the core of human rights due diligence is the principle of doing no harm. Many panellists suggested that this should be considered a positive duty and called on businesses to develop pro-active human rights strategies to prevent harm, rather than taking reactive measures after an issue has arisen.
  • Business need to better educate employees about the contexts in which business and human rights issues arise, as well as how to prevent and address them.
  • Companies should be more transparent about their due diligence processes and to share lessons learned within the industry (for example through industry bodies such as the International Council on Mining and Metals), in order to build consensus.
  • Human rights due diligence and responses should address the most significant and challenging risks, rather than resolving ‘easy wins’ and/or focusing on risks that are currently in the media spotlight.
  • Companies should move beyond a ‘box-ticking’ approach to human rights due diligence, to substantive engagement and meaningful implementation, tailored to the particular operating environment of the business. This includes detailed consultation with affected communities in a culturally appropriate manner.

The challenges of artificial intelligence and automation

Two of the most well-attended sessions on Day 1 addressed the impact of novel and disruptive technologies.

A session on artificial intelligence considered the challenges of adapting the UNGP scheme to emerging technologies, with panellists highlighting the need for businesses – including both the tech companies engineering new products, and companies deploying them in their business – to consider how their actions might impact on human rights. Key issues include programming systems so as to avoid discriminatory effects and building in controls on data gathering and surveillance to prevent misuse of sensitive information.

Automation was also a hot topic, with a panel considering the responsibilities of business to assist workers when jobs are "automated out of existence". The debate focused on proposals for business engagement with workers and trades unions and the provision of fair warning to those affected, but questions remain on the practical limits on what business can do in such scenarios, and the proper division of responsibility between government and private enterprise.

Looking ahead

The Forum runs until Wednesday, with hundreds of sessions debating each of the above points and more. Whilst previous iterations of the Forum have focused on business action, this year’s event sees a shift towards state obligations, and particularly the increasing role of national legislation in promoting the UNGP scheme. The first day saw a session assessing governmental progress on the UNGPs, with states reporting on their National Action Plans to implement and enforce business and human rights standards. These developments will be explored in further depth over the next two days.  

The Freshfields team will be providing daily updates on the key themes arising from the debate and their implications for the development of the law.

 All our reports of the 2018 UN Forum can be found here.

If any of our regular readers are at the Forum, please do get in touch by emailing natalie.sheehan@freshfields.com and michael.quayle@freshfields.com.