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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

8th Forum on Business and Human Rights: “Stepping up government leadership: from commitments to action” - Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

25 November 2019

Geneva, 25 November 2019

Distinguished Vice-President of the Council,
Members of the Working Group on Business,
Distinguished panelists,
Colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to welcome you to the 8th annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. It is very encouraging to see so many people from different backgrounds coming together to share experiences and thoughts about how to ensure protection and respect for human rights in the context of business. I particularly welcome and pay tribute to human rights defenders, and representatives of workers and communities: we heard some of their stories in the "voices from the ground" session this morning.

Throughout history, business and trade have been crucial to human life – and human rights. They have brought higher standards of living and delivered goods, enabling people's access to economic and social rights, and promoting development. Freedom from want is, to a large extent, provided by the practise of business around the world.

But if business activities are not checked by strong frameworks for accountability and governance, they can also involve exploitation of workers and users of their products; land grabs and other abuses of the rights of local communities; increased inequalities and damage to our right to a healthy environment.

All of us here today know that it is time to move from commitments to such frameworks to concrete action, in implementing them. We need to push the three pillars of the of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – "Protect, Respect, and Remedy" – from paper to practice. We need action by States to pass or uphold legislation that meets international human rights and labour standards, and which protects workers and affected communities, at home and abroad. It should also include effective policies, regulation, adjudication, economic incentives, guidance and the promotion of dialogue among relevant actors.

Because although more and more companies are recognizing their corporate responsibility to respect human rights – and are implementing human rights due diligence – we are still seeing unprincipled business practices, which continue to generate preventable human suffering; impede inclusive and sustainable development; and fuel inequalities.

Many of the mass protests we have been seeing – in both developed and developing countries – arise from issues that you will be discussing over the next three days. People are angered by their exclusion from decision-making, their perception of corruption, and widening inequalities – which aren't just leaving millions of people behind: they're actually pushing them further backwards.

Young people and older ones are demanding action, for the sake of their futures and the future of our environment.

Solving these issues is a fundamental matter of human rights – but it is also a very practical matter of self-interest, for every Government, and every business. Inequalities constitute an affront to rights, deepen people's grievances, create social, political and economic tension, and prevent the full participation of every member of society in society. State inaction and business practices that lead to climate change and environmental degradation are generating suffering for individuals and communities.

Undoing inequalities, and facing up to climate change with real action, are essential elements of social cohesion and sustainable development.

We are also seeing an increase in attacks and killings of human rights defenders. Reporting by my Office indicates that last year, more than three human rights defenders were murdered every week for their advocacy and activism. People defending land rights and environmental rights in the context of logging, agri-business, infrastructure projects, mining and other extractive industries are particularly at risk.

Another emerging issue is connected to the digital revolution. We are familiar with its benefits, but some of its darker aspects are generating growing threats to human rights. Online hate speech and harassment is growing, and may spill over into real-world violence and hatred, sometimes targeted against entire communities, or population groups. The use of mass surveillance by governments, businesses and other private actors, intensifying discrimination and violating the right to privacy, as well as a very wide range of other rights. The harvesting and misuse of people's data, including to manipulate voters.

Machine-driven processes and artificial intelligence are already being used in social protection and criminal justice systems around the world, as well as in health insurance and banking – and in several cases, are intensifying inequalities through inadvertent, built-in biases.

Just because a process is digital doesn't make it a human rights-free zone. Human rights are universal – for everyone, everywhere – and this is just as true online as it is on the street. Human rights safeguards need to be built into all these systems from their inception, and they need to be implemented, as a matter of priority, throughout their cycles of use.

My Office is launching a project that will engage stakeholders – including in developing countries – to assess the risks and opportunities they encounter through digital technologies. We will seek to use the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to provide advice to companies and policy-makers on how to mitigate risks and best ensure that digital technology is a force for good, by preventing and addressing related human rights harms.

We need more robust responses from governments, with policies that incorporate a duty to protect the full range of human rights. We need tech corporations to play their part and respect human rights.

We have clear agendas and frameworks, today, for State and business action to help ensure that our globalized world works for all. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is grounded on social justice and human rights. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a roadmap for a global economy in which human rights are protected and respected, and which delivers a just, peaceful and sustainable future for all.

States must protect; companies must respect; and those who are harmed must have redress. The Guiding Principles stipulate how.

I welcome the important legal action taking place in some countries, and at the regional level, requiring human rights due diligence by companies to prevent adverse impacts on people from companies' own activities, and in their value chains. France was the first country to adopt such a requirement under its Duty of Vigilance law, followed by the Netherlands with due diligence focused on child labour. Legislation to tackle modern slavery in supply chains is also welcome.

In addition, I am pleased to note a growing number of countries that are developing national action plans on business and human rights, including, recently, Kenya and Thailand. But we need far broader, faster and more comprehensive work in this regard to really begin to see change take hold. I encourage countries in all regions to draw up such plans, as a vital step towards implementation of the Guiding Principles.

We need coherent policy and legislative action, as the Working Group has emphasised in its recent report to the General Assembly. Under international human rights law, States have an obligation to protect people against human rights abuse by business enterprises. The Guiding Principles clarify that to implement this duty, States should consider a "smart mix" of measures – national and international, mandatory and voluntary – to foster business respect for human rights.

I am very encouraged to see that this Forum includes many women and men from businesses and investment institutions who are calling for more effective government action – and who recognize that businesses benefit from clarity on what government expects from them in their domestic and overseas operations. Action is underway in some leading companies to embed respect for human rights in corporate policy and practice – including across value chains.

Enlightened business leaders know that doing the right thing is also the smart thing to do. They recognize that it is not about "going beyond" their jobs, but doing their core business in a way that respect people and planet. Investors are also becoming aware that they also have a responsibility to address the risk of human rights abuses in companies they invest in, and several leading investors have begun to leverage their influence to drive change

Indeed, without businesses and responsible investors, it will be, quite simply, impossible to achieve the promise of the 2030 Agenda. Working together, we can make those ambitious commitments achievable. We can eradicate extreme poverty and invest in social, economic and political inclusion, while ensuring that no-one is left behind. But we need to count on both States and businesses -- and place respect for human rights at the heart of our joint action.

Thank you