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Desautels Centre Report on the 12th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

UM Faculty of Law houses potential future hub of business and human rights in Canada

January 24, 2024 — 

The 12th United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in Geneva, Switzerland from November 26-29, 2023, brought together a diverse and global community of scholars, practitioners, consultants, community activists, UN and government officials. With the support of the Business Law Advisory Committee, Dr. Laura Reimer, Director of Program Development attended in-person for the purpose of networking and gathering information for the Faculty’s Business and Human Rights initiatives. Jenna Chemerika, Faculty of Law Program Review Coordinator, also participated virtually from Canada, and attended the sessions Reimer did not. The Forum centred on the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which implement the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, but which are also complicated and difficult to action. Much of the Forum was about how to translate the concept to actual practice.

The attendance of 3,993 individuals from 144 countries, both in person and online, highlighted the significance of the event. Information presented at workshops and events by scholars and experts revealed potential for engagement and impact for the Faculty, and in particular provided a trailblazing opportunity for the Marcel A. Desautels Centre for Private Enterprise and the Law. Reimer compiled a lengthy list of potential action items for the Faculty to undertake to move its programming forward in Business and Human Rights law.

The purpose of sending a representative of the Desautels Centre and the Faculty of Law was multi-faceted, including networking, knowledge expansion, exploration of candidates for an advertised Research Associate opportunity in business and human rights, and promotion of the Desautels Centre’s upcoming conference on Business and Human Rights to be held November 14 – 15, 2024. All of these goals were met and exceeded.

One fact that became evident at many sessions attended at the Forum was that Canada is notably behind in business and human rights research and programming inside academia. In particular, Canada lags in regulation and law and enforcement that ensures business practices that respect human rights. Currently, businesses are merely to “self-regulate.” Through the 10-plus sessions attended by Reimer and Chemerika, it became evident that there are rich opportunities for law schools to be agents for change to advance the guiding principles of human rights in business and business law. The Desautels Centre has the potential to become the Canadian hub for research, teaching, and networking in this field. While in Geneva, Reimer was able to collect information and contacts to begin the earliest phases of work to establish the law school as the Canadian centre for business and human rights.

Desautels Centre Mandate

The urgent issue faced around the globe by family businesses, transnational businesses and communities is the responsibility of private enterprise to respect human rights throughout the operations of the business from the supply chain to profit sharing. The mandate of The Marcel A. Desautels Centre for Private Enterprise and the Law is to integrate the disciplines of law, business and the humanities as they apply to family-controlled and other private enterprises. The focus on private enterprise, rather than public corporations, and a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding business people, as well as their businesses, makes the Centre unique for a Canadian law school and equipped to engage issues faced by these enterprises and their owners at all stages of the private business life cycle, from conception through growth and development, to maturity, succession and disposition.

One of the challenges of human rights and business is communication. Family businesses globally do not confront this challenge to the same level because dialogue is typically simpler among family members and this translates into the family business context. One of the key messages of the Forum was the need for respectful, informed dialogue in businesses and between businesses and communities. The creation of a Business and Human Rights checklist for due diligence and equitable outcomes in business supply chains is an immediate opportunity, and collaboration between with the Master of Human Rights and Juris Doctor programs housed at the Faculty of Law are key opportunities for its development.

Forum Sessions and Participation

The forum featured three full days of simultaneous sessions, side events, and evening gatherings catering to specific interests. Each day, sessions ran from 10 am to 6 pm, with notable Opening and Closing Plenary sessions. The Sessions were recorded and can be watched on the 12th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights website. Reimer participated in 12 sessions, one side event, and actively engaged in networking by distributing 100 Calls for Abstracts and 100 postcards advertising for a business and human rights research opportunity. Sessions included topics like Disability Rights as Part of Business and Human Rights, Small and Medium Businesses as Agents of Change, Understanding the Intersection between Advertising and Human Rights, and Just Transition in Energy and Extractive Industries.

Key Challenges and Opportunities

The primary global challenge identified by Forum presenters was the lack of awareness and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in most industries worldwide.  

A crucial takeaway from the Closing Plenary was the global need for education on UNGPs. Developing a program for incorporating UNGPs into classrooms of public policy, law, and business was highlighted as a priority, and presents an opportune takeaway for the work of the Desautels Centre.

Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum

The Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum, the group that sponsors the prestigious Business and Human Rights Journal (BHJR), published by the Cambridge University Press, seeks to publish research and to equip academics to advance the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, met the day after the Forum. Dr. Reimer attended by invitation. Scholars from universities around the globe attended, including Japan, Australia, Slovakia, Hong Kong, Geneva, UK, Paris, Toyko, Poland, Brazil, and American schools like Columbia, Harvard and Yale. They talked about the potential to expand knowledge about business and human rights through the development of course modules for law courses like Administrative Law, Public Policy, and Social Corporate Responsibility. They also talked about the popularity of business and human rights courses among students. Today’s law students comprise a generation that wants to make a positive impact and scholars shared how eager their students are to learn more about business and human rights. The Desautels Centre can play a key role in developing the Guiding Principles for application in Manitoba businesses and beyond our borders.

Focus on Indigenous Peoples

Dialogue with Indigenous Peoples emerged as a central theme in various sessions, and the lack of dialogue, including prior, informed and free consent was addressed consistently by Indigenous representatives from around the globe. Clearly, Indigenous populations are not against development, or oil and gas development, but they are asking for respectful business practices. Several of the large businesses attending the Forum echoed this need and explained how they have shifted their practices to align with the Guiding Principles and to ensure better development outcomes for everyone involved. This theme revealed that The Desautels Centre, in collaboration with the Faculty of Law’s office of the Director of Indigenous Learning and Services and the L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic, could play significant roles in facilitating the implementation of UNGPs, especially in terms of respectful dialogue, in Indigenous legal matters and business development.

International Impact and Collaboration

Participants and panelists at the forum indicated a willingness among family businesses globally to implement the Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights, but there are many challenges. Because of the strong familial structure of businesses in the middle east, dialogue about the UNGPs is readily fostered; implementation is not. The Desautels Centre, through its website portals and business law-focussed peer-reviewed journal, can play a pivotal role in much needed dialogue and in the communication of these Guiding Principles.


The 12th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights provided valuable insights, identified challenges, and presented opportunities for the Marcel A. Desautels Centre for Private Enterprise and the Law to make a substantial contribution in the field. Focusing on education about business and human rights, localizing the UN Guiding Principles, and actively engaging with Indigenous communities and family businesses will intentionally position the Centre as the Canadian leader in business and human rights research, teaching, and networking. The Centre’s upcoming conference on November 14-15, 2024 in collaboration with the Human Rights Centre at Essex University, to be held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and the Faculty’s current search for a Research Associate in Business and Human Rights, further demonstrate the Faculty’s commitment to advancing this critical field. Recognizing that Canada has no centre for Business and Human Rights, the Faculty of Law is excited to be foundational as this opportunity is developed with relevance and innovation.

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