Opening statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
26 October 2020
Members of the Working Group,
It is a pleasure to be at the opening of this sixth session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights.
The Working Group is mandated to draw up an international and legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. This is an objective that is both challenging and complex, but which is potentially crucial to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
I welcome the flexibility you have demonstrated in organising and attending this sixth session under the challenging circumstances created by the COVID pandemic, as well as the UN's current financial difficulties. I also congratulate the representative of Ecuador on the release of a second revised draft legally binding instrument. Renewed discussion about this second revised draft will be at the centre of this session.
I think all of us look forward to rich and substantive discussions focused on States' shared goal - and common interest - in insuring more principled, constructive business operations.
I also look forward to hearing from civil society groups, representatives of business, trade unions, national human rights institutions and other stakeholders – all of which have already provided many important contributions to the Working Group's progress over its first five sessions. I welcome the Working Group's embrace of these diverse voices, each of which sheds its own light on the topic of preventing and redressing business-related human rights abuse, and ensuring greater accountability and remedy. A record number of civil society representatives are participating in the session, either in person or virtually, and I thank them for their continued advice and activism.
All of us are aware that businesses have growing impact on people's lives – from working conditions, to how and what we consume, to our environment, relationships between men and women, and the surveillance and ownership of our personal data. In order to ensure effective prevention, protection and remedy for business-related human rights abuses, it is crucial that a future treaty take into account the experiences of those who stand to be most affected by business activities.
For example, women and girls may experience different, often disproportionate, and unanticipated impacts than men and boys. I therefore emphasise the need to empower and protect all affected communities, and also, in particular, human rights defenders and other activists – including land rights and environmental defenders.
The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating many trends across society, including the risk of a massive increase in extreme poverty. It lays bare the fragility of global supply chains, as well as the extreme vulnerability of many of the people who work in them. These pressures highlight the fact that businesses have a clear interest in the resilience and vitality of economies and societies – and make it even more important that businesses respond to fast-moving trends in ways that uphold human dignity and rights, in every community in which they work. Embedding respect for human rights across value chains is a key part of efforts to recover better.
This process is part of ongoing efforts at the national and international levels to adopt regulatory measures requiring companies to carry out human rights due diligence. My Office has developed a note setting out the different considerations for the modalities of mandatory human rights due diligence regimes, all of which can play a vital role to play as part of a mix of measures to effectively foster business respect for human rights. This note can inform your discussion of these points during the negotiation; and it forms part of the submission the Office has prepared for your consideration at this session.
We share the goal of ensuring better protection of human rights in the economic sphere. I view the treaty process as an opportunity to enhance the protection of human rights in the context of business, including by improving accountability and access to effective remedies for victims.
The work of our Accountability and Remedy project is in many ways complementary to the goals of the Working Group – as are the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights adopted by the Human Rights Council. Indeed, the UN Guiding Principles themselves call for a "smart mix of measures", which can clearly include relevant and meaningful legal developments at the international, regional and national levels.
It is therefore important that the treaty process not be misused to undermine or halt implementation of the Guiding Principles. In that context, it is encouraging to see new national action plans being developed, including by Ecuador.
This is a challenging mandate and a complex process. I invite all Stakeholders to engage constructively in this shared work to further promote principled, responsible and accountable business operations.