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Sustainable development: UN expert group calls for accountability of public and private sectors

GENEVA (16 June 2015) – The United Nations Working Group on business and human rights today urged the UN system and all its member states to make globalization inclusive and aligned with human rights, and called for full accountability of public and private sectors’ activities in that regard.

The expert’s call comes as a number of key international negotiations are taking place on sustainable development goals for the world, development financing and the climate change, as well as a number of policy talks on trade, finance and investment. 

“Today we are at a major crossroads for making sure that the way the world does business, trade, finance and investment is not at the cost of human dignity, environmental protection, equality and sustainability,” said human rights expert Michael Addo during the presentation of the Working Group’s latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council.

“It is critical to achieve coherent solutions,” the current head of the expert group said. “That means ensuring accountability of those public and private actors which have the capacity not only to drive economic growth, but also to undermine human development.”

A major backdrop to the ongoing debates on sustainable development is globalization and the increasing role and impact of businesses on society. Business is increasingly also recognized as a partner in development, from investing in land, natural resources, infrastructure, health and technology to providing funding for various development efforts. 

“We see in the newly proposed sustainable development goals that the private sector is envisaged as having a key role. At the same time, we are concerned that there is not sufficient recognition of the fact that business activities can also have negative effects on human rights,” the expert warned.

The Working Group’s report notes that business can affect the full spectrum of human rights in the context of development, “from displacement of communities without proper consultation or compensation, affecting the right to food and life, to pollution affecting the right to clean water and health.”

The study also points out that while States have a duty to protect human rights, business has a responsibility not to cause or contribute to human rights harm, and both have the duty to ensure access to remedy for victims. “This is set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and must be reflected in all frameworks for sustainable development and economic governance,” Mr. Addo stated.

The expert group’s report defines how organizations within the UN system could play a role to ensure a more coherent global system, but in particular stresses the need for States to ensure that their positions on sustainable development, trade, finance and investment were consistent with their human rights obligations.

The report presents a range of practical options for States which include, among others using the UN human rights checklists in contract negotiations with private investors, as well as ensuring that investment treaties do not constrain the State’s ability to adopt legitimate reforms to fulfill the human rights of citizens, and that international financial institutions’ lending activities do not undermine human rights.

The group of experts also recommends that an increased role of the private sector in the pursuit of sustainable development goals is coupled with the necessary accountability mechanisms, including by making companies report on their human rights impacts.

“In moving forward, all stakeholders must play their part,” Mr. Addo stressed. “Businesses must take steps to meet the expectation to respect human rights. States should seize the opportunity to move towards more coherent approaches in global governance, and ultimately to improve human rights outcomes in support of sustainable development.”

(*) Read the Working Group’s report to the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/29(28): http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/Reports.aspx

The Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. Its five members are: Michael Addo (current Chairperson-Rapporteur), Ms. Margaret Jungk (Vice Chair), Mr. Pavel Sulyandziga, Mr. Puvan Selvanathan, and Mr. Dante Pesce. The Working Group is independent from any government or organization. It reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly. For more information visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/WGHRandtransnationalcorporationsandotherbusiness.aspx

The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

See the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/Tools.aspx 

For additional information and media requests, please contact Ulrik Halsteen (+41 22 917 9323 / wg-business@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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