Voices from the Ground session at the UN Forum: Sobering reality check on business & human rights

Laura Collier, ECLT Foundation

Voices from the ground session

Participants slowly but steadily filled the UN Palais de Nations main room to hear voices from the ground, real-life experiences from human rights defenders and community representatives that took the central stage at one of the opening sessions of 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. 

The faces from the panel – Saeeda, a mother whose son’s tragic death pushed her to become an advocate for corporate accountability, Sadhana, an indigenous woman whose community’s health is at risk from zinc-mine contamination, Emmanuel, a lawyer facing an uphill battle advocating for rights, and Olman, a 17 year-old student who spent years of his childhood working in fields –  preceded the sessions on corporate due diligence, Guiding Principles and parent company liability, providing a sobering reality check that aimed to ground the rest of the conversations at the Forum.  The session highlighted the grave abuses and gaps in access to justice that continue. Saeeda Kathoum, spokes-person for the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association, said:

“They (the companies) did not accept their mistakes, even after doing bad work. Every factory has the same potential for a tragedy.  Being a mother, I say this should not happen again.” - Saeeda Kathoum, Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association representative (Pakistan)

These concrete cases of how business activities affect the lives of ordinary people provide “a representative reflection of the global dynamic in the field of business and human rights,” commented Surya Deva, Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

Though the Forum remains the largest business and human rights meeting to discuss challenges and progress, moderator Debbie Stothard, FIDH, reminded that:

“[O]ften best practice does not trickle down to the most vulnerable communities.” - Debbie Stothard, FIDH

Discussions from both the panel and the floor detailed rights violations and hardships, including land grabbing, generational poverty, child labour, and even death from working conditions or from threats to those who attempt to defend their rights.  

“This session was an important reminder of the fundamental reason for the existence of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights – which is to hear and learn from victims & human rights defenders about the realities of human rights abuses, to be able to face that reality and to find solutions together,” highlighted Ana Zbona from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, one of the session organisers. Connecting discussions that shape corporate policy and national law to what is happening on the ground is crucial to creating systems where rights are consistently upheld.

“Despite significant progress made and that we are continuing to make in implementing the UNGPS, these cases show the challenges and what need to be achieved in the future." - Surya Deva, Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

The human rights defenders shared their views on what needed to change, calling for improved access to justice, to education, and proper consultation with affected communities and their representatives.  Panellist Emmanuel Umpula from AFREWATCH urged for change at international level, saying, “As local communities and NGOs, we are still waiting for the binding treaty [on business and human rights], and we request you to go faster, if you can, because it is very important for us.”

“The heart of the economy are human beings, therefore, we have to put people at the heart of every business opportunity” - Venasio Tokatokavanua, Tikina Namosi Landowners Committee (Fiji)

... said Stothard, on behalf of absent panellist Venasio Tokatokavanua from Fiji, as the session came to a close. This deceptively simple call served as a strong reminder for the panellists, public and UN Working Group for entirety of the Forum. Solutions are found and remedy is real when people are made the priority by businesses, governments and all other actors, including investors.

The Voices from the Ground session was convened by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights in collaboration with: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-growing (ECLT) Foundation, The African Coalition for Corporate Accountability (ACCA), Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children's Rights, Global Witness and Rafto Foundation for Human Rights.