12/08/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Mo and the Movement: Reflections on the Third Annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights

On December 1st-3rd, 2014, the third annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights was convened at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Chaired by Dr. Mohamed "Mo" Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecom billionaire turned philanthropist, the Forum brought together over 2000 registered attendees from civil society, academia, business and government. The title of this years Forum: "advancing business and human rights globally: alignment, adherence and accountability."

Dr. Ibrahim (let's just agree to call him Mo) opened the discussions with a charge: we all have accountability over the agenda of promoting human rights in business practice. Mo urged attendees to use the three days to move the needle, to "make short speeches and long spaghetti," a reference to a saying he'd heard urging for substantive engagement and little glad-handing.

And so we went. The days were long and the topics diverse, from sessions discussing National Action Plans on business and human rights being developed across the world, to the human rights implications of indirect sourcing practices in global supply chains. Across the plethora of panels and perspectives, however, there emerged to be some general crosscutting findings.

First, the needle is moving. Governments are taking up the charge to examine their laws, policies and precedents and are starting to understand that change starts with them. They are beginning to track the gaps in coverage and build action plans and commitments to close them. They are also beginning to examine novel regulatory means of embedding human rights into corporate practice, including through considering the levers they have on procurement, non-financial reporting, and through financial regulations. Remedies, however, remain elusive and concerted effort must be made to close the gaps and enable justice for those who have been negatively impacted by corporate activities.

Second, the dialogue is becoming substantive. Either it was Mo's call for long spaghetti or that three years on from the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, we are finally coming around to tackling thorny issues, discussing embedding reform in company and government practice and putting aside finger-pointing and soap box sermons to get to the meat of the issue: how to minimize and create accountability over the negative impacts of corporate activity. Across the panels I attended, I was inspired by the creativity, thinking and ultimate realization that we weren't doing enough fast enough. A panel moderated by Professor Gwynne Skinner or Willamette University, for example, considered the thorny issue of financial barriers to access to judicial remedies. Instead of a series of depressing interventions, what we heard were creative, smart ideas. We heard lessons from other areas of the law, including consumer protection. We heard about means by which market based incentives could help address these challenges. Fundamentally, and across the multi-stakeholder participants, we heard that we needed to act.

Third, business isn't afraid. After much concern over business "coming to the table" to discuss and debate these issues, what emerged from this year's forum seemed to be a sense that business understands its role in this struggle. I heard directly from Marcela Manubens, Unilever's Global Vice President for Social Impact, on a panel on human rights reporting that Unilever knows they aren't perfect. They are choosing to engage because they recognize that they can make a difference, and they are committed to trying to achieve that result. Sure, Unilever is already ahead of the pack on these issues, but let's not discount how incredibly important it is for companies like Unilever and leaders like Marcela to set this tone, to aggressively and openly pursue a human rights agenda, and to acknowledge that they too are a "work in progress."

Fourth, "treaty" isn't a bad word. Ever since the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for the development of an inter-governmental working group to elaborate principles for a binding treaty on business and human rights, the word "treaty" has seemingly conjured feelings of fear and concern. The halls of Geneva's institutions were filled with "Oh my god, what does this mean!?" and "I just can't believe it!" What was clear from the after-shock, and particular evident at this year's forum: it's just a treaty and it's not so scary. Sure, we still have quite a bit to go in defining the content and form of such an instrument, but stakeholders seemed to agree: this process is complementary and not threatening to embedding the UN Guiding Principles and other business and human rights frameworks into State and company practice. This is the right result. Further elaboration of international standards with respect to business and human rights in no way shifts the burden on us all to continue to deepen practice, including around ensuring access to remedies, now. The treaty talk shouldn't crumble the edifices we are building, but rather expand the landscape upon which to build them.

Ultimately, Mo's quite the man. In my mind, there wasn't a better, more charming Chairperson for this Forum. Mo managed to interject humor, reflection and nuance to a discussion that has often been about three camps not seeing eye to eye on anything. He understood that his role as Chair brought responsibilities: to hold us all to account. He asked tough questions and issued praise when he felt it was due. He sought to illicit spontaneous reactions, to move us beyond stated positions and to challenge us to think and discuss on the spot. This was particularly striking at the closing session of the Forum, where he recognized that business voices were not reflected in the discussion. Instead of letting that slide, Mo challenged an over-capacity room in the Human Rights Council chamber: "who will speak for business?" he asked. Two brave souls took the leap with Mo. Their remarks added perspective: "we know we have work to do, but we must recognize that the small steps we are taking are important."

This Forum too perhaps is just a small step. But it's nonetheless important.

Mo, welcome to the movement.