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1 Jan 2024

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, BHRRC

2024: the year of elections, conflict – and business transformation?

Human rights in business are central to a better future for our planet. But faced with the challenges of the last year, it can sometimes feel like only a small ‘hammer’ for a very big nail! We have suffered the hottest year on record; the cruelties of war, siege and repression; inflation driving a cost-of-living crisis globally; the Wild West-release of AI with less regulation than a new toaster; and the implosion of our multilateral system’s ability to cope with these collective action problems – from COP28, to the UN Security Council to the G20 and G7.

We need more traction. In 2024, our business and human rights movement needs to reach out to other movements who seek common goals. The towering achievement of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – 75 years old last December - recognises the “inherent dignity...and equal rights” of all the human family. Rights are an expression of and central tool in the achievement of humanity’s shared values of equality, solidarity, sister- and brotherhood, decency, dignity, freedom, compassion and care for each other. They are not separate from them. We should seek to collaborate and cooperate with diverse and like-minded movements to amplify our common messages (and tolerate our differences).

One such movement is the New/Feminist Economy movement. Thinkers such as Jayati Ghosh, Mariana Mazzucato, Thomas Piketty offer our movement a wider lens on how we can achieve respect for human rights in business. And, in turn, we can offer their movement insights into transformational business models to deliver a just economy of shared prosperity, corporate duty of care, and fair negotiations with workers and communities.

But our first duty must remain to those facing abuse. We must demonstrate the humility and solidarity to support their movements: from women workers confronting abuse in Myanmar and Bangladesh; and migrant workers caught in forced labour and racial discrimination; to Indigenous Peoples fighting dispossession of land and water, and workers and communities fighting for a just transition to clean energy.

2024 is a busy year for democracy and human rights. We will see over 60 national elections for presidents or parliaments, including in South Africa, India, Mexico, USA, the European Parliament, South Korea and Indonesia. The governments of these countries play a central role in shaping human rights in business and market outcomes in their own countries - and internationally.

Will our next governments sustain a business-as-usual approach that helps drive accelerated climate breakdown, a fifth mass extinction, and unsustainable levels of inequality that threaten the fabric of our democracies? Or can our movements, collectively, help present ‘just economy manifestos’ to all politicians to highlight urgent opportunities that arise from emergent better practice: from green industrial policy, to human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, to trade policy that outlaws goods manufactured with forced labour, digital democratic control, human rights incentives for business through public procurement conditions, and the protection of human rights and environmental defenders against attacks and silencing?

An ’Overton Window’ is open to us – what was dismissed as ‘absurd and unthinkable’ in our world a decade ago is increasingly ‘sensible and popular’. Witness the (partial) victories for our broad movements from Europe’s CSDDD, to USA’s Inflation Reduction Act, Brazil's proposed Corporate Accountability Bill, Mexico’s improved Mining Regulation, and Sierra Leone’s Mines and Mineral Development Act; changed thinking in some leading companies regarding their human rights duties; and some investors’ expanding definition of what ‘fiduciary duty’ means in a world of ecological crisis, inequality and authoritarian threat.

But this window will close if we cannot unite to build momentum towards tackling our collective action problems. As we know, there are immense vested interests in our unsustainable status quo – including many fossil fuel, tech, and fast fashion giants. They are determined to slam this window shut.

And alongside these global questions, our movement will have to respond to the urgency and immediacy of business’s role in worsening conflict and repression. The ethnic cleansing of Nagorno Karabakh by the petro-state Azerbaijan was ignored (they will now host COP29!). And now the urgent calls for a ceasefire and an end to the siege in Gaza to protect civilians, alongside the release of hostages, are ignored. Companies play a critical role in conflicts and repressive states – from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to the military coup in Myanmar. Indeed venal companies seek to profit from this human suffering. Our movement will need to sharpen our tools to insist companies demonstrate ‘heightened human rights due diligence’ to ensure they are not contributing to the conflict and worsening human suffering, and respect international humanitarian law. As we are doing for companies’ investments and operations in Russia, we are establishing a heightened due diligence tracker for Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel. This is especially for tech companies that continue to turbo-charge hate speech and hold the power to ensure people’s access - or not - to often life-saving information through internet and phone connectivity.

2024 will be a decisive year for many issues central to the aspirations of the business and human rights movement. Our ability to demonstrate essential unity, and our ability to reach out and collaborate with other like-minded movements will determine how big our ‘hammer’ will be when we hit the nail on the head.

By Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre