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Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Inaugural Session of the Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises (Closed Session)

Palais des Nations Room XXIII
10.00 – 10.30 am
16 January 2012

Distinguished experts,

I would like to welcome you and congratulate you on your appointment to the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Your mandate is pivotal to some of the most pressing issues of our time. The financial and economic crises have brought the interface between human rights and the role of business and financial actors into stark relief. The past year has seen the beginnings of a movement with potentially global reach reacting to apparent failures of global and national governance. We are seeing that governance gaps created by the rising reach and influence of business actors have not been matched by a similar rise in the capacity of societies to manage their impact and ensure accountability for adverse human rights impacts resulting from business activities.  I care greatly about these issues. Most recently, I instructed my Office to file an amicus curiae brief in a major case before the U.S. Supreme Court [Kiobel v. Shell], which concerns the potential liability of corporations involved in human rights violations abroad. In my submission, I underscored that under international law, corporations can be held liable for the most egregious violations of international law.

Your mandate builds on the achievements made by the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on business and human rights, Professor John Ruggie. The unanimous endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the Guiding Principles for the implementation of the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework was a significant milestone. The Guiding Principles provide a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity. They bring clarity on the human rights responsibilities of business enterprises and the legal and policy measures to be taken by States in line with their existing human rights obligations. Importantly, the Guiding Principles give full recognition to the importance of enhancing accountability for human rights abuses and providing victims with effective remedies.

You are tasked to ensure the effective and comprehensive dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles. Full implementation will require fundamental changes in policy and practice by both states and business. It will also require the availability of effective means through which states and business can be held accountable for abuses.

It will be particularly important to ensure the sustained involvement and support of all relevant stakeholders. I am therefore pleased to hear that your first act was to invite all stakeholders for their input and suggestions on your program of work. The response to your call has been overwhelming, reflecting the high interest in your work. 75 submissions have been received from member states, business related entities, trade unions and other civil society organizations. About 100 representatives of states, business and civil society have registered for the introductory exchanges scheduled for later this week. All this is testament to the importance of the issues at the core of your mandate – and to the level of scrutiny which you will be subjected to as you go about implementing it.

I hope that you will also collaborate closely with your fellow Special Procedures mandate holders, whose mandates cover thematic areas and countries that will be of great relevance to your own work. Key UN organisations, civil society and other organisations working in the field of business and human rights are also interested in working with you.

As you probably know, National Human Rights Institutions contributed actively to the process of developing the Guiding Principles. These Institutions are uniquely placed to work together with states, business actors and civil society at the national level to promote the implementation of the Guiding Principle. I would encourage you to take advantage of their strategic position and support their continued efforts in this area.

My Office will be providing you with substantive and logistical support in your work. Unfortunately, member states do not allocate enough staff resources to my Office in order to meet the mandated tasks Special Procedures have been given by the Human Rights Council. I have repeatedly raised this concern with the Council.  While I will do my utmost to ensure that you receive adequate support, I ask for your understanding given the constraints under which we have to operate in the current economic climate.

Let me conclude by urging you to adopt a principled and inclusive approach that pays particular attention to the human beings and communities impacted by business activities, especially those most vulnerable and marginalized. At the end of the day, human rights are about real people. Your approach should also take into account the operational and institutional challenges that both states and business face when it comes to instituting fundamental change. It will be key to continue along the path of consultation and inclusiveness so that your work is anchored in the realities and all stakeholders continue to stay engaged.

I wish you a very successful inaugural session and will follow your work as it evolves. Thank you.