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1 Jan 2024

Surya Deva, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development

Business, human rights & development: A case for course correction in 2024 & beyond

As part of my new UN mandate on the right to development, I participated in several major events in 2023: the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Africa Wide High Level Consultation on the Right to Development, the 12th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, the COP28 and the Human Rights 75 High Level Event.

It was quite telling that discussions at these events were mostly siloed with little overlap in terms of participating people, themes and standards. Even key terminologies at these events were different. For example, human rights due diligence (HRDD) – the lingua franca in the business and human rights (BHR) field – is hardly part of discourses on sustainable development or climate change. Conversely, principles such as “polluter pays” and “common but differentiated responsibility”, while relevant, are rarely discussed in the BHR space.

More critically, only a few speakers or participants at these events focused on addressing the root causes of the ongoing challenges – from entrenched poverty to growing inequalities, worsening triple planetary crisis, increasing conflicts, looming risks of new technologies, democratic backsliding and shrinking civic space. There was a clear divide between those genuinely celebrating the progress made over the years and those feeling frustrated by its slow speed.

It is increasingly becoming clear to me that a transformative shift is needed to address systemic problems: a shift in our lifestyle, business models, development narrative, economic order, role of states, and governance structures. A shift is required because there is limited empirical evidence to suggest existing BHR standards have been able to prevent and remediate corporate human rights abuses (for evidence, see the findings of the 2023 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark). Moreover, we are seriously off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Let me outline three components of this shift that decisions makers at the United Nations, states, companies and civil society should pay greater attention in 2024 and beyond:

First, the world needs a new vision of development because the current vision sacrifices human rights and the environment as a legitimate cost of cumulative economic growth. The current vision of development is linked to most business-related human rights abuses, creating inequalities and disregarding planetary boundaries. The Beyond Gross Domestic Product policy brief, developed by the UN Secretary General as part of the Summit of the Future, seeks to provide a new pathway.

In my vision report presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2023, I proposed a model of “planet-centred participatory development” as an alternative. Putting the planet at the centre will ensure the negative consequences of adopting an anthropocentric approach are minimised. The principle of leaving no one behind should include not merely human beings, but the entire ecosystem of biodiversity. Moreover, all development policies, programmes and projects should be developed through active, free and meaningful participation of people in an inclusive manner. Participation is not the same thing as consultation: the former requires sharing of power and recognising the agency of people to determine their development priorities in an informed way.

Second, we need a shift towards business models designed to promote human rights and sustainability. The “do no harm” approach, as well as HRDD as the primary tool to discharge the responsibility to respect human rights, provides a critical starting point. The recent EU deal on the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive is a welcome development too.

However, these steps are unlikely to address the root causes of corporate human rights abuses. Nor are these initiatives likely to challenge companies promoting unsustainable consumption, offering unhealthy products, converting employees into gig workers, exporting hazards to developing countries, evading tax payment, grabbing the land or profiting from exploiting a common resource like water. The role and purpose of business in society must be reimagined. Moreover, the legal architecture of business irresponsibility (comprising, for example, corporate laws and international investment law), which enables human rights abuses and facilitates evasion of responsibility, should be redesigned.

Third, we should recover the state as the guardian of human rights. Realising all human rights for everyone is a no-delegable obligation of states and this remains the case even in a free market economy. Non-state actors such as businesses have an independent role in realising human rights. At the same time, states should not be allowed to outsource their human rights obligation, abandon their obligations at borders or weaponise human rights selectively for political convenience or economic opportunities. Nor should states adopt policies aimed at facilitating the commodification and financialisaton of human rights.

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights project – and the role of states in it – requires serious introspection to remain relevant. At a minimum, “We, the people” should be able to demand that states take effective steps to dismantle the current neocolonial and neoliberal economic order and embrace the vision of a human rights economy from the perspective of the most improvised human beings as per Gandhi’s Talisman.

By Surya Deva, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie University and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development