From the 2nd to the 4th of December, some 1,700 delegates from around the world descended on Geneva for the second UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Gathering underneath the Spanish artist Miguel Barcelo’s stunning ceiling, representatives of states, business and civil society spent three days discussing the state of implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a non-binding global standard for preventing human rights abuses by business adopted unanimously by the UN Human Rights Council two years ago.
Civil Society delegates represented around 40% of the total attendees at the Forum, and made their voice heard throughout, not just through their participation but also through a demonstration against corporate impunity outside the event, as well as through a coordinated social media effort to amplify critical voices. In contrast, business delegates made up less than one third of the attendees, and on occasion did not take their opportunities to speak when offered during plenary sessions.
Andreas Missbach of the Berne Declaration represented BankTrack in a panel discussion on the financial sector’s human rights responsibilities, and a number of our member and partner groups, including CEDHA, Accountability Counsel, Berne Declaration, SOMO and CounterCurrent, were also in attendance.
The financial sector panel started with clarification from the OECD that the UN Guiding Principles do indeed apply to the finance sector, including private banks, pension funds, private equity holdings and the holders of minority shareholdings. There was clarification that banks are considered “directly linked” to human rights abuses perpetrated by projects or companies they finance. This was a step forward from last year’s Forum, in which questions over terminology and the applicability of the Principles took up a great deal of time. Finally we may now be able to stop arguing over terms and get on with the work of implementation.
Another step forward this year was that the Thun Group, a group of seven banks working on recommendations for how banks should apply the UN Guiding Principles, had produced their long-awaited Discussion Paper. This meant that UBS, which represented the Thun Group both this year and last, had plenty to say in their allotted eight minutes, in contrast to last year, when a great deal of time was wasted describing the town of Thun in Switzerland, which gave the Group its name. (It is, by all accounts, a pleasant enough place.)
BankTrack launched a paper, emailed to our supporters as the finance session began, outlining the ways in which the Thun Group’s recommendations fall short. We are particularly calling for banks to provide grievance mechanisms to people whose human rights are affected by the activities they finance. Thus far, banks have taken the view that their customers are best placed to operate such mechanisms, and have not faced up to their responsibilities to ensure that affected communities can complain and seek remedy from banks directly. UBS disappointingly did not take the opportunity to address BankTrack’s concerns at the forum, and we await a response from the Thun Group.
It was in a following session on public finance that the real impacts of banks on human rights were thrown into sharp relief. After a representative of the Brazilian development bank BNDES described their human rights due diligence processes, Heike Drillisch of CounterCurrent queried how its policies worked in practice, given its financial support for the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. The mega dam has been the subject of protests for many years as indigenous people have been forced from their land without compensation, and has even been declared unconstitutional by Brazilian courts due to the failure to consult with indigenous people.
While the UN Guiding Principles and the Thun Group discussion paper are welcome steps, the proof of the banks’ avowed good intentions will be in their willingness to refuse finance for projects and companies which cause such egregious harm to some of the world’s most marginalised people.