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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Türk addresses UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

“Looking at the past, anticipating the future”

27 November 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights



Distinguished Chair and Members of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights,
Distinguished panellists,
Colleagues and friends,

I am really pleased to be addressing you all today at this forum, a vital platform within the United Nations to bring together States, businesses and other stakeholders to advance the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights.

In two weeks, we will mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Adopted in December 1948 by a young United Nations, this remarkable document was a collective and determined response to the unprecedented destruction and suffering wrought by two world wars, the Holocaust, massive economic inequalities, and long-standing repression of freedoms.

A steadfast pact, acknowledging that the only pathway to a lasting peace was through protecting human rights.

And articulating, as a global community for the first time, what those rights are – drawn from our shared values of humanity, ubiquitous across cultures and histories.

The most translated document in history, the Declaration has had an extraordinary role in so much of the progress we have seen since its adoption – even as we recognize that we are continuing to face a multitude of challenges.

For indeed, 75 years on, we are once again at a crossroads, promise and peril both looming large.

We are witnessing levels of violent conflict not seen since 1945, 55 this year. Today, one quarter of humanity lives in areas affected by conflict, of which the crisis in the Middle East has been of course of acute concern in recent weeks. We continue to face existential crises in the triple planetary crisis and the unprecedented technological challenge of Artificial Intelligence.

At the same time, we must contend with deepening geopolitical tensions and a determined pushback on human rights.

The decisions we make today will determine the course of humanity for generations to come.

Some of those decisions will be taken not by governments, but by private sector entities, whose responsibilities have grown apace with their ever-expanding influence.

While the Declaration was drafted primarily with States in mind, its Preamble clearly recognises the role of “every organ of society” in achieving its vision.

And, as you know, since its adoption, the international human rights framework has evolved not only to encompass a rich body of treaties for States, but also to embrace the crucial and growing roles that the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders can and must play to realise the full potential of human rights.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights has served as a catalyst in this respect, providing much needed clarity about the responsibility of business in relation to all internationally recognised human rights standards.

The Guiding Principles also elaborate on the existing obligations of States to ensure that business operates without doing harm to people.

And, just as importantly, the avenues for remedy that must be available if harm occurs.

Civil society, for its part, plays a crucial role in helping businesses to implement the Guiding Principles, monitoring progress, and exposing harms when they occur. Human rights defenders take considerable risks in this quest.

Indeed, it is a community of diverse stakeholders that has brought the Guiding Principles to life in so many policies, guidelines, national laws, and regional and international standard-setting initiatives around the world.

You are a crucial part of that community.

But there remain many private sector entities that deem human rights an obstacle to profit and growth. I ask all of you who have seen the immense value of human rights in your business practices to bring them onboard.

Colleagues, friends,

My Office’s Human Rights 75 Initiative aims at turning the historic moment of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration into one of real opportunity – both to take stock of our successes, but also our failures, and to look ahead to the next 25 years.

We have been listening to individuals and communities from every region to understand their human rights priorities.

The global barometer published in September by the Open Society Foundations, confirmed that the vast majority of people believe human rights to be a “force for good”.

We must use this anniversary moment decisively to reaffirm humanity’s collective belief in the promise of human rights, and our commitment to doing more to ensure that human rights are part of the solution to our biggest challenges.

As part of our Human Rights 75 Initiative, I am asking for pledges from States, civil society, private sector entities and all other actors, that can make a concrete difference to the enjoyment of human rights today and for decades to come.

I welcome the pledges received already and invite others to get involved.

The website of my Office sets out specific guidance on a range of pledges, which can be made individually or in collaboration with others. Businesses may join up with civil society organisations, women’s groups, human rights defenders, faith-based actors, Indigenous Peoples’ groups, youth groups or survivors of human rights abuses.

A pledge could be a commitment to introduce human rights due diligence practices to a business, or to establish consultations with communities affected by its operations.

Or it could be through making a donation to UN Human Rights to support the creation of a Helpdesk on Business and Human Rights, which will allow us to meet rising demands from a wide range of businesses seeking to meet their human rights responsibilities.

Whatever route you take, I urge you to get involved.

You each have the power to make an enormous contribution.

As we commemorate the Declaration, this is not a moment simply for reflection.

Or, indeed, complacency.

It must be one of action, and I am calling on everyone to play their part.

Thank you.