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Statement by Ms. Flavia Pansieri, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the International Organisation of Employers /Fédération des Employeurs Romands-Genève, International Conference on Business and Human Rights, 19 November 2014

19 November 2014

Good morning,

It is a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to address this international conference on business and human rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has enjoyed very constructive working relations with the International Organization of Employers for several years, but this is the first time we have had the opportunity to engage with the Fédération des Entreprises Romandes Genève.

I congratulate both organizations for bringing together such an excellent group of experts, company practitioners and business federation representatives to discuss challenges and success stories in efforts to ensure that business activities do not infringe on the enjoyment of human rights. I am also pleased to note that two members of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, [Ms. Margaret Jungk and Mr. Michael Addo], are present. This underlines the constructive engagement of the United Nations and its independent human rights mechanisms and representatives from business.

As many of you will know, OHCHR was directly and actively involved in the process of developing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which was led by the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Professor John Ruggie. Since the endorsement of the Guiding Principles by the Human Rights Council in 2011, OHCHR has supported implementation of the Principles by both States and business enterprises through outreach, training and capacity building. We are also working with civil society organizations, trade unions and national human rights institutions to enhance their capacity to use the UN Guiding Principles. We are proud to support the UN Working Group and assist it to ensure that its activities are complementary and mutually supportive.

Thanks to the different efforts of all relevant stakeholders, there has been significant uptake of the UN Guiding Principles, although progress in implementation must be strengthened. Elements of the Guiding Principles are now found in the policies of international bodies, public and private, including the OECD, the International Standards Organization, the FAO, the UN Global Compact, and public and private project lending institutions. They are referred to in regional initiatives, including those of the European Union, the African Union, the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe, and ASEAN.

At the national level, comprehensive national action plans for the implementation of the Guiding Principles are being developed. So far national action plans have been prepared, or are under preparation, predominantly in Western Countries, but efforts are also underway in other regions. In Mozambique for example, OHCHR is directly involved in supporting a process launched by the Government to develop a national action plan for human rights based on the Guiding Principles for the country’s extractive sector. And last week, OHCHR led a seminar in Qatar on business and human rights during which the Government of Qatar announced its commitment to promote and implement the UN Guiding Principles as part of its reform processes. Other national level initiatives include non-financial reporting requirements and guidance for export credit agencies.  

Many companies – either individually or in industry or multi-stakeholder contexts - actively seek to implement their responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the Guiding Principles. You will hear more about these initiatives during the course of the day. These efforts will also be discussed during the third Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights from 1-3 December, which I hope many of you will attend. Conducted under the guidance of the UN Working Group and organized by OHCHR, this is the largest annual global gathering focused on business and human rights, and it is one of the largest annual events in the United Nations human rights calendar.

The level of activity during the three years since the Guiding Principles were finalized has been impressive, particularly compared to the speed in which many other international human rights standards have been implemented. But much more needs to be done.

OHCHR continues to receive information about serious abuses linked to business activities. These involve failure of States to meet their human rights obligations to protect people against abuses related to business activities. They involve companies who have failed to conduct business in a manner which respects human rights. These examples often involve victims who do not have access to effective remedy for the harms they have suffered.  

In June, the Human Rights Council decided to establish an inter-governmental working group to draft a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and human rights. I know that the IOE and many other parts of business have expressed concerns, but I believe it is important to recognize that at least one of the motivations for this decision was the desire to encourage further progress.

The first session of the inter-governmental working group will take place in July 2015, and it will meet for one week annually. It will be some time before any instrument is finalized, so for the foreseeable future, the UN Guiding Principles will remain the authoritative global framework for business and human rights. Indeed, the States supporting the idea of a treaty were careful to also underline the importance of continued attention to the Guiding Principles.

During the development of the UN Guiding Principles, and in the three years since, the issue of access to effective remedy has continued to be of particular concern. Access to effective remedy is core to the international human rights regime and a fundamental duty of States. The Guiding Principles elaborate on the implications of this duty and also address business responsibilities in the regard. Although there are some excellent initiatives—for example, IPIECA’s community grievance mechanisms tool kit for their members in the oil and gas sector—there is a widespread perception that not enough attention has been paid to the access to remedy pillar of the Guiding Principles. The Human Rights Council reflected this concern in a resolution in June, requesting that greater attention be devoted to this issue during the Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. The Council also requested OHCHR to continue its work to facilitate the sharing of legal and practical measures to enhance access to remedy, and report back to the Human Rights Council in 2015 and 2016.

I am grateful to the IOE for participating actively in OHCHR’s project on enhancing access to remedy particularly in cases of corporate involvement in gross human rights abuses, which was launched earlier this year. This is an ambitious endeavour involving inclusive multi-stakeholder consultations on a range of legal and practical issues which aim at greater clarity on accountability and remedy, particularly for the most serious abuses. This project will be an important part of OHCHR’s work over the next two years and will contribute to more effective implementation of the remedy pillar of the Guiding Principles, particularly as it relates to States. Plans for six different work streams in this project will be published within the next few days. I would like to warmly encourage all of you to contribute to the global and expert level consultations that form part of this important project.

I wish you a very productive day.