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Opening Remarks by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights

General Assembly Hall
Palais des Nations, Geneva, 2 December 2014

Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

Welcome to all of you. It is very heartening that so many leaders and opinion-makers are present at this United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, and we are honoured to have brilliant, irrepressible Mo Ibrahim as our Chair.

Among you are the CEOs of major corporations, policy-makers in government and international institutions, experts and civil society activists. They include Alejandra Ancheita, who has received the Martin Ennals award for her work to defend the rights of migrants, workers and indigenous communities in Mexico, Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, who has fought to stop deforestation of his ancestral lands in the Amazon rainforest,  Hina Jilani, who is a pioneering voice in Pakistan's women's movement,  N.D. Jayaprakash, an activist for the victims of Bhopal and Dickey Kunda, an activist for the victims of the Kilwa massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

To them, and to the many other human rights defenders in this room, I pay tribute. Your work has been instrumental in bringing about new awareness of the responsibility of business to uphold human rights. We are here, in great part, because you have raised your voice.

Let there be no doubt about this: business activity generates economic opportunities and services that are vital to human dignity and the enjoyment of human rights. But business also has the potential to cause serious harm. Exactly thirty years ago, on the terrible night of the 2nd of December 1984, a cloud of deadly gas escaped from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, spreading death and blindness throughout the city. It was an unspeakable tragedy, and in many ways a turning point. Bhopal brought new attention to the negative impact that business can have on human rights, and led to growing calls for justice and accountability. 

Public opinion began demanding an end to land-grabs, forced and bonded labour, child labour, sweatshop working conditions, environmental damage, and the plunder of public resources. Many States and business leaders heard and echoed that call.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a roadmap of the actions that both States and companies must take to prevent business-related human rights abuse, and to provide effective remedy and justice. Respect for human rights and internationally agreed labour standards must be a corporate priority. This Forum is an occasion for all of us to share our experience and take stock.

Here today in Geneva are the representatives of companies that are taking action to implement the Guiding Principles, and we look forward to hearing from them. I would like to see far more businesses engaged in this work – and strong progress from those who are already involved. To policy-makers, may I say that States also need to step up their action to prevent – and ensure justice ­– for harm caused by economic activities. This is a fundamental duty of every Government – and that includes ensuring that corporate actors are accountable.

Finally, the Human Rights Council has decided to begin work on a new, legally binding treaty on human rights and transnational corporations. Although this decision gave rise to some discussion, we must now ensure that political controversy does not become an obstacle to action. While treaty negotiations will start next year, and may take time, we must advance in the implementation of the Guiding Principles. 

I urge all of you to use this Forum as an opportunity to advance our shared goal: more effective protection of human rights in the economic sphere. All of us know that much more needs to be done to achieve this, and I hope that our priority at this Forum will be action – action that tackles human rights abuse, and improves human lives.