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"The movement to ensure businesses uphold human rights is gaining momentum"

7th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights
Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

26 November 2018

Distinguished Chair,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to welcome you to this year’s United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights.

70 years ago, almost to the day, the international community proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement and the highest aspiration of all people.

The Universal Declaration calls on “every individual and every organ of society” to strive to promote respect for human rights. Business enterprises are one such organ of society, and they play a particularly important role -- not only in respecting the human rights of workers and of people affected by business operations, but also in influencing and leveraging others to uphold human rights.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reinforces the role of business in our quest to achieve a world where no one is left behind. It calls on businesses to contribute actively to achieving universal respect for human rights.  When adopting the 2030 Agenda, States made a specific commitment to ensure a well-functioning business environment, in which human rights are protected, in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the labour standards of the ILO. SDG 17, in particular, highlights the importance of stronger global partnerships to support and achieve the 2030 Agenda, bringing together national governments, the international community, civil society, the private sector and other actors.

This three-day Forum will be looking at how these commitments and aspirations can be operationalized, and how we can speed and scale up progress.

Excellencies, colleagues,

We still have a long way to go before the goals of the Universal Declaration are fully realised. But I am greatly encouraged to see that the movement to ensure businesses uphold human rights is gaining momentum. The high interest in this annual Forum testifies to this.

A number of companies and business organisations are leading the way in acknowledging their human rights responsibility, and taking steps to identify, prevent and address adverse human rights impacts.

Increasingly, businesses are also using their leverage to promote respect for human rights by their business partners.

We are also witnessing more engagement by business leaders when human rights defenders are targeted for speaking up against abuses, or in cases where fundamental freedoms are under attack. For example, many businesses are standing up for the equal rights of LGBTI people. There are many others.

I invite all the private sector actors present today to join our Stand Up For Human Rights campaign, and commit to the human rights pledge you will find on our website. You will also find suggestions for ways that businesses and other actors can engage to promote and defend human rights.

Excellencies,

The business sector's commitment to positive change has been driven, in large part, by the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011.

States are primarily responsible for setting up effective policies and regulation of business activities, to protect human rights.  Nonetheless, a central message of the Guiding Principles is that all business enterprises, big and small, have an independent responsibility to respect human rights.

In other words, regardless of how States are performing in their obligation to protect all human rights, business enterprises are required to respect them. In fact, in contexts where Governments are failing in their obligation to protect human rights, business enterprises need to take additional care to ensure that they are not involved in human rights abuses.

Public commitments to respect human rights need to be accompanied by practical steps, which enable businesses to know and show that they respect human rights throughout their supply chains. That is, they are expected to exercise human rights due diligence, which first and foremost is about preventing negative impacts on people.

Human rights due diligence has become a norm of expected conduct. Now we must push for much wider implementation and learn from what is working. That is the Focus of this year’s Forum.

We will be looking at how companies have walked the talk and learning from emerging practice. We will be discussing what can be done to speed up the pace and address gaps, including what legal and policy measures Governments need to take to incentivise corporate respect for human rights.   We will also see how well Governments themselves are performing, in their role as economic actors.

The Working Group on Business and Human Rights has done us the service of providing a background analysis, which identifies a number of emerging good practices.  However, it but also notes that most businesses around the world are still not carrying out human rights due diligence as expected of them.

Indeed, there are bad stories in many parts of the world.

I am particularly concerned by the number of attacks on women and men, who speak up and take action to defend their communities against human rights abuses in the context of business operations. On a weekly -- and sometimes daily -- basis, we receive reports of physical violence, including killings. In some cases, businesses appear to be implicated in these attacks.

Shocking campaigns of intimidation, defamation and harassment of human rights defenders are also widely reported, as well as the use of lawsuits by businesses to silence workers and human rights defenders by dragging them through lengthy and costly court proceedings.

We need mind sets to change more widely. The good news is that human rights due diligence by business and government action to spur respect by business are possible. – And I am hopeful we will continue to see evidence of such change over the next few days.

This Forum brings policymakers and practitioners together to share and develop practical solutions – solutions that work in the real world.

It is encouraging that participation by business in the Forum has increased every year, and represents one-third of all participants at this Forum. I view this as an indication of an increasingly widespread understanding, that upholding human rights is in the interest of all actors.

Societies become stronger; people benefit from greater opportunities, dignity and freedom; and businesses do better – because upholding human rights is good for their bottom line, as well as their reputation. Evidence shows that doing the right thing is also the smart thing to do.

I welcome the eminent business and civil society leaders, who will address this plenary session, including Kailash Satyarthi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against child slavery.

I also extend my gratitude to those who have travelled great distances to share their communities’ experiences of business-related human rights abuse.

We are counting on all of you to raise your voices and inspire our work together, as we advance the vision of a world, which universally upholds the rights of all. 

Thank you