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Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, High-Level Session Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

4 December 2012
Palais des Nations Room XX

Mr. Chair,
Madame President,
Excellencies,
Distinguished delegates and participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome all of you to Geneva for the first Forum on Business and Human Rights. I know that many of you have travelled from afar to join this global exchange on trends and challenges in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The value of hearing the voices directly affected or involved in the implementation process, be it from business, from government or from civil society and impacted communities, is that our discussions here in Geneva reflect the actual challenges, good practice and lessons learned on the ground. I am therefore delighted at the huge turnout for this event. I would like to extend a special thanks to those donor governments who made generous contributions to enable participation of a wide audience from the Global South.

The theme for this year’s Human Rights Day which we will celebrate on 10 December is “Make Your Voice Count”. It is about inclusion and the right to participate in public life. Your presence at this Forum provides a good illustration of the importance which people from all parts of the world attach to this right. But I also see the overwhelming interest in this Forum as a sign of the imperative felt by all sides, including business, of preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts linked to business activities.

The Guiding Principles aim to address the widening gap between the scope and impact of economic and financial actors, and the capacity of society to manage their adverse impacts including on human rights. They are a response to demands from people across the globe for higher levels of accountability — from their governments, from international institutions, and from the private sector. People are demanding freedom: freedom from fear and freedom from want—as the principal responsibilities of those who exercise power.  They are demanding that the rule of law apply to all — including in the economic sphere.   They are demanding dignity—as the central purpose of our economic and political systems.

Governments must step up to close the governance gaps that have played such a large part in both facilitating and sustaining the current economic crisis, and business must cooperate with government efforts in this regard. Implementation of the Guiding Principles will be a big step in the right direction.

International human rights law - on which both the State Duty to Protect and the Access to Remedy pillars of the Guiding Principles are based - requires governments to protect people from human rights abuse by third parties, including business and financial actors.  Markets, too, must be subject to the rule of law, and embedded in broader social values, foremost amongst them international human rights.

These are not new requirements undertaken by governments; they have been part of the international human rights regime for many decades. And they were affirmed by all members of the United Nations Human Rights Council when they unanimously endorsed the Guiding Principles which elaborate on the implications of existing standards and practices for States and businesses.

The Guiding Principles recognize that responsible governance requires the adoption of adequate regulatory and policy frameworks to prevent and remedy business related human rights abuses. There needs to be a recognition also in the proceedings at this Forum that enhancing legal standards in relevant areas, be it at the national, regional or international level, may be necessary to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Guiding Principles. There is a particularly pressing case for such legal developments when it comes to business involvement in gross human rights abuse.

Responsible business means acting with respect for human rights, reflecting the fact that long-term business prospects are tightly coupled with society’s well-being. I welcome the large turnout of business representatives at this Forum. We need you to be part of the deliberations and share your experiences and efforts of implementing the Guiding Principles. This Forum offers an opportunity not only to learn from each other’s experiences but also to listen to the concerns and aspirations of stakeholders.
 
Accountability and right to a remedy are at the core of the international human rights regime and reflected as such in both the first and third Pillars of the Guiding Principles. However, I have noted with some concern that these fundamental issues sometimes get overlooked in deliberations about the Guiding Principles. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that effective implementation of the third Pillar of the Guiding Principles is fundamental to their legitimacy and success. I am pleased to note that the Forum program includes two distinguished panel discussions on access to remedy. Again I welcome the participation of representatives of affected individuals and communities who can speak from personal experience on the challenges and obstacles they are facing in getting access to effective remedy. Hearing first hand from people on the ground ensures that our efforts at addressing such obstacles respond to the reality on the ground. I am also pleased to note that the Working Group will be embarking on a project aimed at exploring criteria for what constitutes effective remedy.

The United Nations also has a role to play in advancing the implementation of the Guiding Principles. Earlier this year, the Secretary-General presented a report to the Human Rights Council in which he recognized that it is only through the concerted efforts of all relevant actors that the potential of the Guiding Principles for improving enjoyment of human rights can be realised. The United Nations system has a key role to play in this regard. My Office will be following up on implementing the Secretary-General’s recommendations which were echoed in Human Rights Council resolution 21/5 of 16 October 2012, particularly when it comes to addressing the need for capacity building of all relevant actors.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This Forum is a unique space for all participants to engage on this vital human rights question in an open, respectful and constructive atmosphere, in which all stakeholders are welcome and, indeed, essential to our success.

I thank you for embracing this approach, in the true spirit of the United Nations.

Thank you.