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International Organisation of Employers Roundtable on Inclusive Multilateralism, Business and the SDGs

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
8 May 2019

Mr. Secretary-General Kituyi
Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am pleased to have this opportunity to explore ideas on how we can inspire greater engagement by business in achieving the Agenda for Sustainable Development, our globally agreed plan for peace, prosperity, dignity and rights.
This is a key moment, in terms of fulfilling the Agenda’s promise to the people of the world.

Inequalities are alarmingly high. The impact of climate change is deepening. After a decade of tremendous progress, the number of people who suffer hunger has increased. Discrimination continues to block millions of people – most obviously, millions of women – from full participation in the economic, social, political and cultural lives of their communities. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than older adults. And frustration, in many places, is giving way to anger – and even violence.

Although many countries are making important advances towards the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, the world’s overall progress is too slow. If we continue down the same path, “we will only be halfway towards achieving the sustainable Development goals”, as the UN Secretary General declared last month, adding  “ this “a critical moment to accelerate our action for sustainable development”. 

These actions will benefit all of us. Governments and international organisations can´t do it on their own. They need the dynamism and innovative power of an engaged business community.

Why? Because business cannot thrive in failing societies, where inequalities, deprivation and social tensions spike higher and higher, and grievances fester.

Strong civil societies, due process, equality and justice: these are what enable real economic empowerment, in resilient and prosperous countries.

As global citizens, I am sure you want to contribute to a world in which everyone has the opportunity to live lives of dignity.

We all want to be certain that our children and grandchildren will live in a sustainable, peaceful and just planet. People need to be the why of development.

Societies, and all social actors, must strive to ensure that economic growth improves people’s dignity and well-being, leaving nobody behind.

That´s not all. Today, many business leaders acknowledge that good business means doing business right.

They are implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to address human rights impact in their operations and supply chains. And they incorporate the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption into their operations. Through these efforts, they are better prepared to manage the risk of the massive reputational damage, which arises when corporations are perceived to be involved with serious human rights abuses, such as child labour and modern slavery.

Indeed, it is through effectively implementing the UN Guiding Principles across their value chains, that business can make the greatest contribution to implementation of the SDGs at the scale required. Imagine the impact for example on SDG 5 if all companies as part of their responsibility to respect all human rights had to ensure respect for gender equality throughout their operations. And the impact on Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth, if companies systematically ensure respect for labour rights across their operations. 

The implementation of the UN Guiding Principles remains the baseline expectation for all businesses, everywhere. As in medicine, the first imperative is to do no harm.

But business leaders are also looking outwards – seeking to improve lives in the communities in which they work. Business actors know they can be powerful advocates for human rights, which build peaceful and stable societies, able to overcome conflict and look to the future.

Some corporate leaders are realizing that it is in their interest to combat discrimination, inequalities, xenophobia, violence and hate – including by lobbying authorities to take action, and by empowering their staff to stand up for rights.  As important local, national and regional actors, businesses can have major impact on the empowerment of women, migrants, minorities and marginalized groups, including LGBTi people.

Your action to help achieve the 2030 Agenda will contribute to creating societies that advance vital human rights issues of food security, land rights, environmental sustainability, the right to privacy and other essential topics.

In addition to meeting the baseline responsibility to respect human rights throughout your operations, you may wish to focus your work on specific issue areas, or achieve these goals by supporting institutions such as my Office. We are looking to increase our engagement with business, as part of our efforts to build a stronger global constituency for human rights, including through strategic and technical partnerships where appropriate. I am sure that in this room there are many potential partners.

In this context, I want to add a few words about your roundtable’s discussion of inclusive multilateralism.

Business needs stability. And in any landscape in which there are many power centres and diverging views, stability can only emerge from a well-managed, rules-based system.

In today’s turbulent world, all business actors have a strong interest in achieving a multilateral order, with the UN at its core, involving close cooperation with regional organizations, development banks and others. 

Only by working together will we be able to build a safer, more just world.

Thank you.