This post was originally published by Just Ground.

Over the past four years, rights holders have comprised only 6% of the speakers at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. This matters, for reasons I’ve already set out in my first post in this short series on the Forum. My second post breaks down the data on Forum speakers and session organizers, which suggests that entrenched disparities are sidelining rights holders.

For this post, I reached out online to rights holders who are listed as speakers at the UN Forum over the past four years. I asked them about their experience at the Forum, whether speaking there met their goals for participation, and how they think the Forum could be improved. Several rights holders responded, and I extend my gratitude to them. I guaranteed that their identities would remain confidential unless they gave me specific permission otherwise. Since most of them did not grant that permission, I’ve done my best to both collate and remain true to their remarks here without naming them individually.

Desire for Constructive Dialogue and Accountability

“So we need to ask ourselves, how can we make those most affected by corporate human rights abuses be part of the process not as discussion points and case studies but . . . to meaningfully contribute?”

The rights holders who responded noted that speaking at the Forum was an opportunity to make connections with allies and raise awareness of the human rights issues they were working to address – but they underscored a desire for dialogue and action on those issues as more important. For example, an indigenous representative described the opportunity to speak for her community at the Forum as the best day of her life. But, she explained, “After the excitement subsides then comes the reality of making sure you get heard and, better yet, a response, acknowledgement, solution, resolutions, support and, yes, a way forward.”

Several people commented that the format of the sessions was not conducive to those goals. The same indigenous representative remarked on how nerve-wracking it was  “to fit everything into two minutes and to cover a massive topic.” One person wrote, “Key stakeholders are not in the room. How can levers be harnessed if the process is not inclusive, the participation is limited, and the discussions are regulated?” Another commented, “The Forum of course is not an adjudication body but still it can be a safe space for discussing accountabilities and responses of duty bearers.”

[As a side note – A few people also mentioned the limitations of what can be accomplished at the UN Forum, or, more broadly, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They called for movement beyond voluntary measures to a binding treaty, or other legal accountability mechanisms to hold countries and companies accountable to their human rights commitments.]

Lack of Support or Welcome from Organizers

“It is indeed unfortunate that grassroots speakers are not well represented in the Forum. In fact, we had to lobby to speak, and we had to support ourselves to be able to participate.”

All of the respondents noted a lack of support from Forum or session organizers. This included some issues I raised as barriers in my last post, such as difficulty in getting visas and limited funds to travel. And one person specifically noted that recent opportunities for participation online failed to take into account the digital divide (which could be one of the reasons why the percentage of rights holder speakers decreased or remained the same after the UN Forum shifted to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021). The end result, she said, was that rights holders don’t have an opportunity to speak for themselves. 

Others noted a lack of support on the ground in Geneva. For example, a person who made the 18+hour journey from East Africa explained, “It was just me from my village organization” and that, when he arrived in Geneva “no one was there to guide or welcome” him. He was not provided with “clear information on transport and accommodations, ” got lost, and had to ask someone on the street for help. Another person commented that they had difficulty organizing side events, “We wrangled with venue, time of event, logistical support, etc.” and that “it seemed like at all stages” they “had to fight for their space.”

Sidelining Rights Holder Perspectives

“The Forum should not be a preserve of the elite.”

As Tara Van Ho’s 2016 post on Rethinking the Forum pointed out, more could be done to ensure that rights holders “are at the center, not the sideline, of all of our discussions.”  She suggested that this could start by hearing from them directly in the opening plenary as a way to set the tone for the Forum.  It seems that the organizers took this to heart – but only partially so. 

At the 2019 Forum, a rights holder panel,  “Voices from the Ground,” was the first session, but it was not the opening plenary. A participant on that panel shared that organizers indicated that it was intended to set the tone or agenda of the Forum. But, in the end this wasn’t successful because : 1) there was no way to change the Forum lineup at that point; 2) no representatives from the governments or corporations involved in the issues the rights holders were speaking about were present and no high-ranking UN officials attended it; and 3) the room was less than half full because there was a long line of people waiting outside to get through security.  (The speaker noted, however, that the actual opening plenary, which immediately followed their panel and included the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “was very well attended.”)

Sidelining perspectives is not just a matter of emphasis or timing, however. It’s also failing to value what people have to say. One person, for example, noted that “the technical nature of the discussions” were a barrier for some people. An indigenous representative similarly explained, “Most is seen through the eyes of the Western World and not the eyes and ears of the Indigenous peoples who are connected to the Land.” This failure to respect rights holders’ ways of knowing is a form of epistemic injustice, which, as I noted in my first post, should be something that the UN Forum helps to address, rather than perpetuate.

The UN Forum Fails At Inclusion

“The Forum could do much, much better.”

In summary, the rights holders who wrote back to me to share their experiences suggested that the Forum could be improved by:

  • Increasing the percentage of of rights holders who speak at the UN Forum;
  • Taking into account the digital divide;
  • Considering that most CSOs and community members from the global south have limited funds to travel to Geneva;
  • Ensuring reception and support for rights holders who need it on the ground in Geneva;
  • Providing more information to rights holders on what they can expect at the Forum, including what the UN can do in response to human rights abuses;
  • Ensuring that, when there are “panels of rights defenders and rights holders, the concerned actors—states and companies—should be there to respond.”

All of these suggestions relate to better efforts at inclusion. This definition, from Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World, I think sums it up nicely, 

“Inclusion refers to how diversity is leveraged to create a fair, equitable, healthy, and high-performing organization or community where all individuals are respected, feel engaged and motivated, and their contributions toward meeting organizational and societal goals are valued.” 

It is not equitable if systemic disparities prevent rights holders from traveling to and speaking at the Forum and insufficient action is taken to address that. It is not respectful to invite people to speak but fail to welcome or assist them when they agree to do so. Rights holders’ contributions are not valued when they don’t have an opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue. 

Sure, inclusion is hard. It takes thought, and time and, in some cases,  financial resources. But that is not an excuse to get it so wrong, especially at a UN Forum whose aim is to promote human rights. 

These issues are solvable, and some people have already chimed in with some ideas. If it’s money that’s at issue, maybe think about taking up @LucDockendorf’s suggestion to create a trust fund  for rights holders to aid their participation in the UN Forum, similar to the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund. If broader perspectives are needed, consider @SuthareeW’s suggestion to include rights holders in the design and decision-making on the Forum. 

Maybe some of this work is already being taken up, and that is why this year’s theme is Rights Holders at the Centre. I hope so, because the problems that rights holders are facing are urgent, and we can’t expect to solve them without hearing from them directly and valuing what they have to say. From the outside, it looks like the UN Forum is not transparent, equitable or hospitable to rights holders. It is not inclusive. And that needs to change.