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Governments must “walk the talk” and lead by example to end human rights abuses by businesses, say UN experts

29 October 2019

NEW YORK (29 October 2019) – Governments must go beyond policy declarations and take concrete policy and regulatory measures across government if they are to prevent and address the impact of human rights abuses by businesses, a group of UN human rights experts* has said.

In a new report to the UN General Assembly, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights proposes a range of measures in the field of policy coherence and roll-out of national commitments, to help governments promote effective implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.   

“States must move their policy measures from paper to practice,” said Elżbieta Karska, who chairs the group.

“It’s time for each State to make sure that government policy on business and human rights is understood and implemented across all government departments, and is put into practice in all their engagements with businesses. This requires a high degree of policy coherence and concrete action, which is rarely evident in practice.

“Our report highlights the positive impact that such steps can have to address the serious and widespread impacts on human rights that are currently being caused by businesses. The people bearing the heaviest brunt include women and girls, low-paid and migrant workers, human rights defenders and indigenous peoples.”

She added: “It is encouraging to see that some States have developed national action plans and made other positive progress. But if these policies are not embedded into working practices right across government, they risk becoming a box-ticking exercise and a pretext for inaction.”

The experts said there were “compelling reasons” for governments to act, not least their legal obligation to protect individuals and communities from human rights abuses, including those inflicted by business actors and activities. They said urgent progress was needed in policy coherence and regulatory action and the effective roll-out of national commitments.

A member of the group, Dante Pesce, who presented the report to the General Assembly said: “Governments themselves have an important economic role – they are large-scale buyers of goods and services, as well as influential owners, investors and trade promoters. They should be leading by example and ensuring their own full compliance with human rights regulations and policies if they expect others to do the same.

“As our report makes clear, policy coherence is also positive for businesses, which benefit from a clear assertion of what the government expects of them in their domestic and overseas operations. This provides predictability and credibility across the whole of government.” 

The report offers guidance on how States can generate the highest level of political support, meaningful participation by all government entities and key stakeholders, including businessesand adequate funding, training and information management in the field of business and human rights.

It also highlights the strong link between human rights in business and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, urging States to integrate planning to maximise their chances of delivering both.

“States are less likely to meet the targets set by the 2030 Agenda and its commitment to leave no one behind, if they fail to pay full attention to policy and regulations on business and human rights,” Pesce said.


* The UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (known as the Working Group on Business and Human Rights) was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 to promote worldwide dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Working Group is composed of five independent experts, of balanced geographical representation. Its current members are: Ms. Elżbieta Karska (Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Surya DevaMr. Dante Pesce, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (resolution 17/4), provide the authoritative global standard for action to safeguard human rights in a business context, clarifying what is expected by governments and companies to prevent and address impacts on human rights arising from business activity.

The Working Group is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

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