CEO Panel – UN Business and Human Rights Forum – Time for Change

Geneva 26th-28th November, 2018

The 7th UN Business and Human Rights Forum took place at the United Nations, Geneva from the 26th to the 28th November, 2018 and it was an extremely busy few days.  Each year (and this is the 6th Forum I have been to) brings something a little different to the table.  Every year the audience changes a little and this year the event had 30% of the business community present, which is a good sign, I think.

Having said that, it’s not a moment too soon for the business community to come into this discussion as we are in serious trouble in the world today- climate change, polluted seas, famines (in a world with enough food), governments who are not taking the situation seriously and business leaders who today, in some cases, hold more power in their hands than any government, according to recent studies.

With that in mind, I would like to talk about a session at the Forum that I felt was very important at a moment when business truly needs to be a force for good in our unstable, troubled world.  The session in question was the CEO Panel that took place in the plenary session on the first day of the event. Gary Goldberg, Newmont Mining, Patrick Pouyenné, Total and Tania Cosentino, Schneider Electric, spoke about the importance of Human Rights in their businesses.

Tania Cosentino Senior Vice President of Customer Satisfaction and Quality for Schneider Electric, spoke about the necessity of having strong processes in place in business concerns, her companies intention of decreasing their CO2 emissions and their decision to fight against climate change.  She added that Schneider Electric will incorporate all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) throughout their operations.  A very pragmatic approach, she felt, when considering the wish her company has to attract new talents who are concerned about these issues.  Furthermore, not only should and must human rights be a concern for big business but also for small and medium sized companies, according to  Ms Cosentino.

Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total talked about the problems his company had in Myanmar in 2008 and the need for them to have a structured approach to human rights. Embedding the UN Guiding Principles is, he felt,  a good basis for the journey.  This, Mr Pouvanné said, is not a question of competition but the real need to work together.  Top level executives must understand the problems of human rights challenges and as they don’t always understand the language of human rights they might understand the idea of safety, this is the way to move forward.

Gary Goldberg, Newmont Mining spoke about their 23,000 employees worldwide, and spoke about how the human rights journey – an interesting one for the company. This journey towards the embedding of human rights in a company requires a changing of mindsets and in some countries going « beyond the law ». A very important point made by Mr Goldberg (particularly for me a person working a lot in Switzerland in the area of equality) related to his company’s board of directors.  5 of the 12 of Newmont’s directors are women and, according to this CEO, this balanced board has been incredibly successful and has led to his company making better decisions.

At Newmont a lot of work is now being carried out with regards to ensuring a better understanding of human rights- an understanding of the necessity to admit mistakes and avoid being defensive when mistakes are made.  One of the most interesting statements I heard in the forum related to the real problem of always taking a legalistic approach – sometimes this is just not the way to go !  A message for all of us legal people……

The CEO panel discussion was enhanced by the intervention of Jeannette von Wolfersdorff Director of the Board and President of the Committee of Corporate Governance and Sustainability, Santiago Securities Exchange (Bolsa de Santiago). Ms von Wolfersdorff emphasied the increasing importance of human rights in investor decisions.  More and more investors are looking for sustainable companies and investors are looking at environmental, social and governance performance (ESG).  More responsible investment ensures better returns for shareholders and listed companies are beginning to understand this, finally…

To sum up, the message from this panel was simple !  Companies need to lead by example, a mindset change is needed in business, it is necessary to bring young people into this dialogue and we must all fight together to reduce inequality in our world.

Let’s get moving………

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