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Opening Remarks by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights

3 December 2013

Mr. President, Chair, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome you all to Geneva and to the United Nations for the second annual Forum on business and human rights.  Special thanks are due to the members of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, who have guided the development of the Forum, and to Mr. Makarim Wibisono, our distinguished Chair. 

Last year’s inaugural Forum was the biggest global stock-taking of the business and human rights agenda to date. The interest was overwhelming with more than 1,000 participants from more than 80 countries.  It showed the seriousness with which people view the issue of human rights and business.  

The importance of this issue has not waned – nor, I am pleased to note, has interest in the Forum, with registrations well exceeding last year’s total to reach some 1,700.

The Forum is a unique event that brings together many groups - States, human rights defenders, businesses, employers’ organisations, trade unions and national human rights institutions.  

It is not only a chance to discuss how to prevent negative business effects on human rights, but an opportunity to hear from people you may not normally engage with, including those whose rights have been directly affected.   

The Human Rights Council’s endorsement in June 2011 of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was a milestone.  It provided for the first time a common, global platform, grounded in international human rights law, for advancing business respect for all human rights. The significance of this achievement should not be overlooked: in just six years, we went from prolonged deadlock in the United Nations to global agreement on a framework for action and accountability.

Having a common reference point for our efforts to protect against and prevent business-related human rights abuses, and for ensuring accountability, is powerful. That is why this Forum is so important.  It allows us to share information on progress and challenges, which is why I am heartened to see many business representatives present here.

Many companies have made real progress in meeting their responsibilities to respect human rights. We will hear the experiences of sectors such as agribusiness, ICT, telecoms, and finance, and practical examples of how businesses are taking serious steps to address impacts on specific groups, including indigenous peoples and children.  It is important that we learn from these experiences.

The Forum is a real opportunity to discuss strategies forincreasing State protection against business-related abuses. I am encouraged that a number of States are developing national action plans for implementing the Guiding Principles. But it is also clear that there is a long road ahead to ensure full implementation.  I look forward to the discussions today, especially regarding the different regional initiatives on this.

My Office has been planning our priorities for the next four years. The message from colleagues in the field was clear: human rights in the context of business activities are becoming priorities for action.  

Across the world, people are being displaced as a result of land grabbing for development projects; their livelihoods are being harmed when companies pollute the environment; human rights defenders are being criminalised for their peaceful opposition to development projects; and people, including children, are being forced to work in deplorable conditions.

That is why my Office has made human rights in the economic sphere one of its six thematic priorities.  We will be devoting increasing resources and attention to this issue.

The Guiding Principles have helped the human rights community to engage with business representatives and helped businesses to understand what is expected of them.

Many industry associations, employers’ organisations and individual enterprises have begun to implement the Guiding Principles. Industry associations are exploring how to establish rights-compatible grievance mechanisms and many companies have begun to address how to perform human rights due diligence.   Responsible supply chain initiatives are increasingly going beyond auditing suppliers to addressing systemic issues.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As the United Nations Office tasked with promoting and protecting human rights, we have a mandate to develop ways to enhance such protection.  With regard to the Guiding Principles, we are providing advice and capacity-building on their interpretation and implementation. We are examining areas where the Principles can provide a framework for further development.  In particular, we know that victims of corporate-related human rights abuses all too often face barriers when seeking access to effective remedy. That is of particular concern in cases of gross human rights abuses linked to business.

The Secretary-General has recommended that all United Nations agencies, funds, programmes and initiatives incorporate the Guiding Principles into their policies where relevant, and has given my Office a mandate to lead the business and human rights agenda within theUnited Nations system. We are excited to take on this task.

As the United Nations, it is important that we speak with one voice in our engagement with States and business enterprises. We must also ensure that the issue of business respect and accountability for human rights is integrated into global development frameworks. Nowhere is this more important than in the Post-2015 development agenda.

The Human Rights Council took an important step in 2011 with its endorsement of the Guiding Principles.  Now it is up to States, international and regional organisations to ensure that they are implemented effectively across the world, in ways that respond to regional challenges and contexts.

This Forum is a chance for you to bring your varied and valuable perspectives to this discussion. 

I wish you all a constructive and informative three days.

Thank you.