High-level Opening Plenary
Business and Human Rights in South Asia:
Where Are We Heading?
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are a set of 31 Principles that serve as a blueprint for responsible business. Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011, the UNGPs have been widely recognised as the most authoritative normative framework guiding efforts to ensure business respect for human rights. The internationally recognized human rights understood, at a minimum as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights in the eight ILO fundamental conventions set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
As a first step toward implementing the UNGPs, States have been adopting National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights (NAPs) since 2013. At the time of writing, 30 NAPs have been adopted globally. In Asia, following Thailand and Japan’s footsteps, Pakistan launched its NAP in September 2021. Moreover, India’s NAP development process is ongoing, while Nepal has formally committed to developing a NAP, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been promoting the UNGPs and are hoped to join its sub-regional peers in their NAP journeys.
The UNGPs are also aligned with and complemented by two instruments on responsible business namely the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (ILO MNE Declaration) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD MNE Guidelines). In implementing the instruments, OECD MNE Guidelines requires Governments adhering to the Guidelines to set up a National Contact Point. Meanwhile, the MNE Declaration contains a set of operational tools which include company-union dialogue service and the National Focal Points (NFP). Pakistan and Nepal have already taken the lead in the region as the first two countries in Asia to appoint NFP for the promotion of the MNE Declaration and the application of its principles.
However, despite the encouraging progress made so far, South Asia faces a wide range of systemic challenges that obstruct business respect for human rights and undermine sustainable development. An increasing number of people are being forcibly evicted or displaced from their lands for large-scale development projects and the extraction of natural resources without meaningful consultations and free, prior, and informed consent. Workers, both in the formal and informal economy, continue to face harsh working and living conditions, often exacerbated by the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Socio-economic inequalities are on the rise, while various types of discrimination and disenfranchisement prevail. Unregulated economic growth accelerates environmental degradation and climate-related risks, jeopardising the enjoyment of a right to a healthy environment. In addition, the global trend towards mandatory business and human rights legislation necessitates a close assessment of South Asian countries’ social and economic performance if the sub-region wishes to maintain its position in global value chains.
Given the multitude of challenges for rights holders, governments, businesses, trade unions, civil society actors, and others, all stakeholders should cooperate meaningfully to solve the business and human rights predicament and realise sustainable development.
The Opening Plenary Session will commence by outlining the current state of business and human rights discourse in South Asia. The discussion will highlight key challenges and opportunities in driving better outcomes across the sub-region, drawing on the findings from the five Country Sessions (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) before the Forum on the 23rd and 24th of March. The session will feature key stakeholders from the region, including governments, elaborating their plans and aspirations to move the needle on business and human rights in the year(s) to come.
The key objectives of this session are to:
Assess sub-regional and country-specific progress, challenges, and opportunities in implementing the UNGPs and MNE Declaration;
Facilitate sub-regional peer-learning by drawing on existing NAPs and ongoing NAP development processes and showcasing good practices;
Discuss the role of different stakeholders in progressing business and human rights discourse in South Asia
Panellists will reflect on the following questions:
What are your country's key achievements and challenges since the 2nd UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights? What opportunities do you see for the future?
What learnings can you share with your sub-regional peers about your country’s NAP development process?
How can Governments ensure that all stages in NAP development enable meaningful engagement and participation of a broad range of stakeholders, especially after a first draft is available? What roles can businesses, trade unions, civil society organizations, rights holders and others play in NAP and other relevant policy development and implementation processes?
What are entry points for different stakeholders to collaborate and drive the business and human rights discourse, beyond NAPs and MNE Declaration, in South Asia?