Opening Remarks by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council at the 9th annual Forum on Business and Human Rights


16 November 2020

16 November 2020

Madam High Commissioner,
Members of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights,
Distinguished panellists,
Friends and colleagues,

It is my privilege and a great pleasure to open the ninth annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, which will focus on the topic of  "Preventing business-related human rights abuses: The key to a sustainable future for people and planet".

This annual encounter between the world of business and the human rights community has become a fixed point in the yearly agendas of many people, so I do understand the disappointment that this year’s Forum is not taking place physically in Geneva. However, we are living through extraordinary times and we would not have wanted to put anybody’s health at risk.

But the “silver-lining” of this current “cloud” is that we have the chance to reach out to even more people virtually, than we would have been able to see in physical meetings.

I would like to thank the Working Group on Business and Human Rights for their work and for organizing this event together with the Secretariat inspite of the challenging circumstances

You have three very interesting days in front of you.

The business and human rights agenda is not new – it started not much later than the current wave of globalisation itself – let us say in the 1970s – but it seems to be getting more urgent and more relevant all the time - for everybody – not just for activists or specialists.

In the early days the debate was about certain big companies who operated in certain countries – often with a weak legislative structures – and specific cases of abuse which became famous. Today the subject has become much more pervasive.

The global economy is increasingly interdependent. While states still have borders, businesses, platforms and the gig economy have learnt to operate beyond these borders most of the time and the big challenge is to avoid that they engage in a race to the bottom with regard to human rights and other standards.

The increasing change from physical markets to digital markets has also changed the world of work – so we have to analyse what labour standards this brave new world needs.

This development has become even more urgent with the COVID-19-pandemic which has proved to be a kind of magnifying glass for many previously existent human rights problems – in particular in the case of vulnerable and marginalized groups.

This year’s topic - and the key message of the Forum agenda - is that preventive measures, when applied seriously by States and business alike, can help to prevent human rights abuses.

Prevention – if it can be achieved – is the ideal tools: it works before violations have happened. This is why the subject matter is so dear to the heart of the Secretary General.

This Forum is what one might call a townhall meeting: all the players are coming together:  states, International Organisations, NGOs, lawyers, the business community, the media.

Bringing all of you together is already a big achievement because there could be no way forward without dialogue and cooperation between all the players.

And against the background of the COVID-19 crisis there is a renewed need to look at past experience and put it into the context of the new challenges.

This pandemic raises all the problems at once: health issues, economic issues, human rights issues. The human rights aspects have to be in our minds all the time – not only when the other problems have been sorted out.

The new world of business does not only cause problems – it also brings new opportunities. The Business and Human Rights Forum is an excellent opportunity to talk about those as well. It also allows us to showcase “best practices”, it helps share ideas and practical solutions that can help people on the ground,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the so-called Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – or Ruggie Principles: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, which were endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011.

Their aim is to put prevention at the core of responsible business conduct.

During this Forum, participants will be taking stock of the broad trends and challenges in implementing the Guiding Principles and considering what can be done better in the future.

I invite you to join in in this dialogue on what has been achieved and what lessons have been learned in the sphere of business and human rights since 2011.

I would like to commend the Working Group on Business and Human Rights for its tireless work – including for the guidance it has provided on how the Guiding Principles apply in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

I would particularly like to welcome our civil society partners who often connect us to those whose rights are violated and to those who stand up and fight for their rights.

A special tribute goes to the human rights defenders who will participate in this Forum. And I would like to emphasize that, whether our events are held in-person or virtually, the same standards of dignity, respect and tolerance towards everybody apply. This Forum must remain a safe and inclusive space for a constructive dialogue by all stakeholders, without discrimination, intimidation, or reprisal.

Last but not least, I am very pleased about the broad participation of the business community at this forum. Just as companies are becoming more and more important as non-state actors, they are increasingly important to the UN as interlocutors and as partners. And to the extent their importance increases so does their corporate responsibility with regard to the protection of human rights and the environment, the fight against poverty and against corruption and the achievement of economic and social development.

Once again, I thank the Working Group and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, together with the United Nations Office at Geneva, for facilitating this meeting. I wish you fruitful deliberations and look forward to reading the report of the Forum when it is presented to the Council next year.

Thank you.