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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Forum on Business and Human Rights 2019Side event: Two roads converge – linking the modern slavery and business and human rights agendasOpening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights26 November 2019

26 November 2019

State Secretary Hagen,
Distinguished speakers,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am very grateful to the Permanent Missions of Australia, Liechtenstein and Norway, as well as to the Freedom Fund and Walk Free Foundation, for organizing this important discussion of modern slavery and human trafficking in the context of business.

The scale and severity of the crimes under discussion should make eradicating them an urgent and absolute priority for every state. But still today, in every country of the world, one or more aspects of slavery and trafficking is taking place –  and may, indeed,  be increasing.

The report on modern slavery and trafficking that was published in September by the Liechtenstein Initiative's Financial Sector Commission found that, "While states have formally abolished slavery,  informally our financial and economic system continues to tolerate,   and even promote, practices that generate similar results."

ILO has estimated that 40.3 million people today are trapped in modern slavery or human trafficking, and the Financial Sector Commission points out that this amounts to "around 1 in every 185 people alive."

These millions of children and adults are being forced into sexual exploitation and prostitution; exploited as forced labour,  often in extremely hazardous conditions;  suffer domestic servitude and debt bondage,  which is often carried over generations. They may be literally captured and sold,  worked to the point of exhaustion,  and then sold again. One-quarter of the survivors who have escaped modern slavery are children,  according to recent research.  Almost three-quarters of the survivors are women and girls. Migrants,  and particularly migrant children,  are at heightened risk: as the UN Secretary General has pointed out,  when conflict and deprivation force people to head for safety,  they are finding themselves at the "mercy of merciless people".

And this is big business. ILO has estimated that forced labour – just one aspect of modern slavery –  generates $150 million a year.  It appears to be particularly prevalent in sectors ranging from the garment industry to palm oil production,  fishing,  shipping, mining, hotels and construction –  among others.  This means that the victims of slavery and trafficking are working in the supply chains of many multinational companies.

To detect forced labour in their supply chains, companies need to conduct human rights due diligence,  on an ongoing basis – and this is also the way to proactively manage any potential involvement with all forms of slavery or trafficking.  Due diligence will identify risks and impacts across operations and value chains; and enable action against existing issues and to ensure remedy.

Employing due diligence should be a priority for every business actor,  and today we are seeing an increasing number of businesses translate human rights due diligence into their daily practices, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

We're also seeing a new realisation that financial institutions may also be involved in slavery and trafficking –  that by handling the proceeds generated by these human rights violations, by financing businesses which profit from them,  or even in their own operations, many banks, insurance companies and other financial companies and institutions are also benefiting from these shocking crimes.

There are legal risks, reputational risks, and moral risks involved here. There are human resources impacts: nobody wants to go home and tell their children that their job involves enslavement. I am convinced that we can mobilise the leadership and personnel of financial institutions to take action against trafficking and slavery – and that we can encourage many more businesses, across every sector of every economy,  to adopt clear and principled action.

The work of the Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking has offered us all an extremely helpful opening to accelerate this work.  I am impressed by the pertinence and detail of its recommendations,  as well as by its consistent emphasis on working with the survivors of these crimes. The Commission's emphasis on providing effective remedy for victims –  and investing in innovation, for prevention – are also notable.

I am very hopeful that this impressive work,  and the mobilisation of all of you,  can galvanise new energy into our shared goal of –  at last –  eradicating slavery and the traffic in human beings from the face of our planet in this generation.

Thank you