At the closing session of this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights the theme was most eloquently conveyed by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said human rights principles were “under duress” in every region.
As he warned: “We seem to be edging back to calamitous policies which can easily hurtle us to disaster. Societies where rights are denied are inherently unstable.”
He added that this period may well come to be seen as a crucial turning point where individuals and organisations can still stand up and speak up for the principles of justice. “There is still time to act, each of us can grasp the lessons of the Universal Declaration. We can stand up for human rights and push back against the toxic tide of hatred and xenophobia. No-one will remember us for our silence.”
The session heard that against this backdrop the legitimacy of multinationals was increasingly being challenged, epitomised by the issue of modern slavery which remains one of the major challenges facing today’s global economy. Unless real progress can be made, the goals of sustainable supply chains and sustainable development will ring hollow.
Amid this gloom there are signs of hope. Stephen Lowe from the Modern Slavery Unit at the UK Foreign Office pointed to the success that the UK Modern Slavery Act, introduced in 2015, was already having in terms of raising awareness of the issue in the boardroom.
As he said: “We want a race to the top among businesses. We want companies to be seen to be performing as well, as if not better, than competitors. This can be transformational.”
He said CEOs were now more actively involved in addressing modern day slavery in their supply chains as a result. “This also creates greater investor awareness. As the visibility of reporting improves so it allows investors to have clear signs of company performance in tackling slavery. We want companies to actively find slavery in their supply chains and tackle it.”
However he conceded that this work was going to take time. “It is estimated that 40 million people globally suffer various forms of modern slavery. There is no quick fix, but this is a shared challenge and exists in all countries. It exists in all supply chains.”
And as Rob Lederer, Executive Director of Responsible Business Alliance, added: “Forced labour is an affront to human rights but that is the easy part to say. The complex part is understanding the issue and how to combat it when it involves complex supply chains.”
Meanwhile the UN hopes that next year’s anniversary will put human rights back at the forefront of all our minds. As it says, human rights start close to home, wherever you work and live. So let’s all look at the world around us just that little bit closer.