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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Meeting with German Confederation of Business Employers

31 January 2019

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

31 January 2019


It’s a pleasure to be here, and to be invited to join you in reflecting about a deeper commitment to human rights – what that would look like in real terms; the kinds of outcomes it can produce; and why and how we need to push forward in that direction.

There is no need for me to detail the various kinds of turbulence and tension that appear to be growing in very many parts of the world. Some of you may have been in Davos recently, where these issues were widely discussed; all of you are acutely aware of the ramifications of such tensions, in terms of your own forecasts, your workforces and societies.

But I’m not sure all of you will be aware of one recent piece of research produced by Edelman, the largest public-relations company in the world. The Edelman Trust Barometer is an annual global polling system which this year polled 33,000 people in 27 countries. It showed a record-high dissatisfaction by what it called the “mass public”, and a record “trust gap” between the general public and what it called the “informed public”.

Only one in five of those 33,000 people felt that the overall system is working for them. Nearly half of the mass public believed that the system is failing them – that they are falling between the cracks. More than 70 percent felt a sense of injustice and a desire for change.

And yet 75 percent of people trusted their employer to do the right thing –significantly more than the 57 percent who trusted NGOs and 47 percent more than those who trusted the media. They looked for leadership from their CEOs: 71 percent of employees agreed that it is critically important for “their” CEO to respond to challenges, not just in the context of their own industry but also political events and social crises across their nation.

So this is one point I would very much like you to take away from this discussion: your legitimacy, your role, in the context of human rights action are very clear. You are being called to action by a large number of voices – including, perhaps, your own people. They are asking you to take a stand to promote more resilient, more respectful societies which can harmoniously resolve disputes and promote the full contributions and rights of every person within society.

And now to my second point: you can make a difference. Businesses have a very important role to play in upholding and promoting human rights – indeed, that role is becoming even more salient today, when some world leaders appear to be disengaging from their commitments to multilateral action.

Every State in the world needs the help of business actors so that they can fully realise the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – which is fundamentally a human rights agenda, based on leaving no-one behind.  The world needs your help in mitigating and preventing climate change – which again, is fundamentally a human rights issue, since climate change and environmental disasters directly affect human rights.

We need your help in realising economic, social and cultural rights: people’s universal, basic rights to food, decent housing, adequate health-care, clean water, education, social protection and so on.

We need your help in realising civil and political rights: the right to participate in decisions, to speak freely, and to benefit without any form of discrimination from access to justice and accountable governing institutions across society.

A major contribution that businesses can make to realizing human rights – and realizing the Sustainable Development Goals – is simply to respect human rights in your own operations.

This is not just something companies should do out of the goodness of their hearts. It is also, very clearly, and very directly, in their own best interests. Every company works best where there are well-functioning and representative institutions, a fully empowered workforce, and a context that is respectful of human equality and human dignity.

It is a task that is just as important in Germany as it is in every other country where you may operate. Every State has room to move forward with the work of promoting and protecting rights, in order to construct, not just great benefit to the individuals concerned – but also, greater resilience, sustainability, justice and harmony across the entire society.

Our work on business and human rights is very important to my Office. We work directly with many businesses to help set up practical ways for them to meet their human rights responsibilities, as set out under the UN Guiding Principles, which I think you’re all familiar with.

The Guiding Principles have now also been integrated into the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises and the Tripartite ILO Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.

The Guiding Principles' main requirement is to carry out human rights due diligence to manage, prevent and address human rights risks and negative impacts.

Together with the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, my Office also organizes the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, to facilitate peer leaning and dialogue among business, States and civil society.

Last year, almost 30% of the more than 2700 participants were from the private sector. Discussions focused on human rights due diligence, with  many good practices emerging in various sectors. But they remain limited to a small group of leading companies. We need many more companies to lead by example.

Our Accountability and Remedy Project is a consultative process seeking to help companies establish more effective mechanisms for providing remedy to people harmed by business operations.  We’re also planning to convene global policy discussions on tech issues, which will also involve direct engagement with companies from the tech sector.

Many of you are already deeply engaged in human rights issues. Some, like BMW and Daimler, have engaged with employees to combat xenophobia and racism, both before and, especially, after, recent episodes of anti-migrant violence. Where you take steps to ensure equal pay for equal work you promote gender equality, not only within your operations but also more broadly, in the communities where you operate.

Already, when we were working to develop the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we found that an overwhelming number of corporate websites or other forms of corporate public statements recognised the responsibility of business to respect human rights. This number has clearly increased since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles in 2011.

More recently, several countries have imposed legal obligations on companies on how to manage their human rights risks. An example of this is the French law requiring French companies over a certain size to have a “vigilance” plan in place to identify and address human rights issues in their value chains.  There are also laws in several countries requiring companies to report on any risk of modern slavery in their value chains, and to report what they have done to address such risks. Unless more companies show leadership at their own initiative, the call for increased regulation will no doubt continue to intensify.

Many laws and policies already reflect international human rights standards, for example when it comes to labour laws, environmental laws, and occupational health and safety.

External stakeholders, such as investors, are increasingly expecting companies to respect human rights. And civil society organisations are increasingly seeking ways to sue companies for human rights related abuses.

So, to sum this up: consumers are asking you to work towards these outcomes; your own employees are asking for them; increasingly, laws require you to do this work; and clearly, this effort is going to build short- and long-term benefits for the hard numbers that constitute your annual bottom line.

The work of setting up effective, active human rights due diligence processes will pay back enormous dividends: broadly, across societies; and also in terms of your reputational value and balance sheet.

During the 70th anniversary celebrations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we benefitted greatly from the active and enthusiastic support of many companies.

Now it is time to let us help you to contribute effectively to your efforts to build better societies.

Thank you