Council Holds Panel Discussion on Tenth Anniversary of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Concludes Dialogue

OHCHR

High Commissioner to Human Rights Council: it is Clear that to realise the Full Promise of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, much more needs to be done

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights after concluding an interactive dialogue with the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that for the past 10 years, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights had set out an authoritative, pragmatic and effective framework for realising positive contributions through preventing and mitigating risk to people. But as the author of the Guiding Principles, Professor John Ruggie, had said himself, an authoritative global framework for action was only “the end of the beginning”. The challenge was to put it into practice. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic had further exposed and exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities that were endemic to many business models. It was clear that to realise the full promise of the Guiding Principles, much more had to be done. Companies must do better.

John Ruggie, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, said he had had the honour to develop the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. He said four specific features of the Guiding Principles had appealed to governments, businesses and civil society, and incentivised them to move this far in a relatively short period of time, where previous efforts had failed. In the past decade, the pace of progress had been reinforced by the remarkable rise in environmental, social and governance investing. These developments by no means fixed the global challenges of business and human rights, but they did provide a strong foundation for the Working Group and others to continue to build upon.

Dante Pesce, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, stated that for the past year, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights had undertaken a project called UNGPs 10+ to take stock of the first 10 years of implementation of the Guiding Principles, to assess how far they had come and to consider what was ahead. The Guiding Principles had without a doubt contributed to significant progress towards promoting respect for human rights in a business context.

They provided a common platform for action that did not exist before 2011.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the Confederation was launching its annual Global Rights Index, which had found that the deterioration in the respect for rights and the increase in oppression and violations was just extraordinary, with a deterioration of human rights, labour rights, and democratic rights and freedoms around the world. Governments were not doing the job of protecting their own citizens. Governments had to legislate, and international institutions had to reinvest in human and labour rights, environmental standards as well as a fair competition floor.

María Fernanda Garza, First Vice Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce,

said that over the past decade, it had actively supported its members to scale up business implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It had also launched a new initiative – the International Chamber of Commerce Working Group on Business and Human Rights – to bring together member companies from its global network to share best practices and experiences, to discuss challenges and opportunities in the business and human rights agenda, and to contribute in a regular way to the UNGPs 10+ project.

Joan Carling, Global Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, said indigenous peoples were often adversely impacted by business operations, mainly in relation to their lands, territories, and resources. It was now crucial and urgent for these business actors to move from policy to implementation and set good practices to make positive changes on the ground in the next decade of implementation. However, the majority of indigenous peoples, especially at the grassroots level, remained unaware of the Guiding Principles and of their rights – this was a major barrier in their implementation.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers welcomed the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles, praising the work of the Working Group and outlining the measures their Governments were taking to encourage companies to safeguard human rights. The Guiding Principles provided an essential benchmark at the global level, and the Council’s endorsement of these principles had been a watershed moment. Responsible business founded on the principles of human rights was key to the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Multiple speakers recognised the need for due diligence with regards to human rights.

Speaking were Eduardo Ernesto Vega Luna, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Peru; Damares Alves, Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights of Brazil; Pablo Anselmo Tettamanti, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Argentina; Jens Frølich Holte, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, on behalf of a group of countries; Iris Rosalía Cruz, Secretary of State in Charge of Human Rights of Honduras; Germany; Uganda; Chile; Cameroon; European Union; Bahrain on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council; Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement; Ecuador; Bangladesh; United Nations Development Programme; Libya; Netherlands; Iran; Sweden; Ireland; Thailand; Russian Federation; Mongolia; and Portugal.

The following national human rights institutions and civil society organizations also took the floor: Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, Moroccan Human Rights Institution, Friends World Committee for Consultation, and International Federation for Human Rights Leagues.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

Speakers said threats and attacks against human rights defenders had increased since the outbreak of the pandemic, with laws on defamation being used to silence them. Business should see defenders as allies. Some said that the main advantage of the Guiding Principles was their “advisory” nature; it was unfortunate that the space of dialogue of the Forum was narrowing, with businesses holding parallel bilateral meetings. Urging the adoption of a legally binding instrument, some speakers said business should face greater criminal liability for violations, as well as concrete penalties, such as asset freezes, license withdrawals, and prosecutions.

Dante Pesce, Chair of the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, in concluding remarks, stated that regarding the protection of human rights defenders, a clear policy of zero tolerance from Governments was needed. The Forum should indeed encourage more enhanced and interactive dialogues, Mr. Pesce noted, however, he disagreed with the suggestion that the work was being done in silos. There was a full report on the issue of business and human rights in conflict zones, noting that weak governance and violence was a significant hurdle.

Speaking were Nepal, Botswana, Azerbaijan, Ireland, Peru, Belgium, Russian Federation, Ethiopia, Viet Nam, Bolivia, Italy, Iran, Malawi, State of Palestine, and South Africa.

The following national human rights institutions and civil society organizations also took the floor: Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, China NGO Network for International Exchanges, RADHHO, ESCR-Net – International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Inc.,Conectas Direitos Humanos, Centre Europe – tiers monde, Terra de Direitos, Sikh Human Rights Group, United States Council for the International Business, Peace Brigades International, China International Council for the Promotion of Multinational Corporations, International Organization of Employers, and International Institute for Rights and Development Geneva.

Japan, China, Brazil, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took the floor in right of reply.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-seventh regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 June, to hold a panel discussion on the human rights of older persons in the context of climate change, followed by the resumed dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises

The interactive dialogue with Dante Pesce, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, started on 28 June and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Speakers thanked the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises for the presentation of the report taking stock of a decade of implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and commended their constructive engagement with stakeholders. They outlined national efforts to protect the rights and interests of concerned sections of the society through laws. Speakers commended the Working Group for hosting such a well-attended Forum in November last year, with over 4,000 participants registered – a remarkable feat at the time of COVID. At the same time, they noted that during the Forum the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders had repeatedly made the case that many of the attacks on and killings of human rights defenders were linked to business activities, which was concerning.

Interim Remarks

DANTE PESCE, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, said there was a lack of policy coherence when it came to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring a connection with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. To better implement a multi-stakeholder approach, inclusive multilateralism was key. On the attacks against human rights defenders, he said Governments should clarify their stances, and stress that human rights defenders were allies. They should not be afraid of leading by example, including by enhancing policy coherence. The Working Group agreed that the human rights agenda should not be used politically. In that regard, it was encouraging that support for it was increasing across the political spectrum.

Discussion

Speakers said threats and attacks against human rights defenders had increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with laws on defamation being used to silence them. Business should see human rights defenders as allies. The main advantage of the Guiding Principles was their “advisory” nature; it was unfortunate that the space of dialogue of the Forum was narrowing, with businesses holding parallel bilateral meetings. While judicial mechanisms were at the core of ensuring access to remedy, national human rights institutions were using their complaints-handling mandate as well as other mandate areas, to facilitate access to justice. Even amidst the pandemic, businesses were putting profits over rights. For instance, pharmaceutical companies failed to openly share vaccine inputs and information that could save many lives, with less than 1 per cent of doses going to developing countries. Urging the adoption of a legally binding instrument, speakers said business should face greater criminal liability for violations, as well as concrete penalties, such as asset freezes, license withdrawals, and prosecutions.

Concluding Remarks

DANTE PESCE, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, stated that regarding the protection of human rights defenders, a clear policy of zero tolerance from Governments was needed. The Forum should indeed encourage more enhanced and interactive dialogues, Mr. Pesce noted, however, he disagreed with the suggestion that the work was being done in silos. There was a full report on the issue of business and human rights in conflict zones, noting that weak governance and violence was a significant hurdle. Mr. Pesce stated that while most Governments and businesses saw the Guiding Principles in a positive light, most civil society saw it from the opposite perspective, which he understood, but noted that the fact that all stakeholders were on the same page and interacting within the same framework meant real progress was being made.

Panel Discussion on the Tenth Anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Opening Statements

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that for the past 10 years, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights had set out an authoritative, pragmatic and effective framework for realising positive contributions through preventing and mitigating risk to people. But as the author of the Guiding Principles, Professor John Ruggie, had said himself, an authoritative global framework for action was only “the end of the beginning”. The challenge was to put it into practice. This was exactly what they had been collectively striving towards over the past decade. The Office of the High Commissioner, through the Accountability and Remedy Project, had been working to enhance the effectiveness of remedial mechanisms so that victims could better assert their rights. It also supported the Working Group in making the Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights into the largest global gathering on business and human rights.

To quote the Guiding Principles, States “should consider a smart mix of measures – national and international, mandatory and voluntary – to foster business respect for human rights”. Many countries had done just that over the past decade, with an increasing number of national action plans being developed. The High Commissioner also welcomed the action taken by many companies and business organizations to meet their responsibilities under the Guiding Principles, as well as to push forward the business and human rights agenda. In addition, she paid tribute to the vital role played by civil society, trade unions and national human rights institutions in advocating for effective implementation of the Guiding Principles by both States and business. It was clear that to realise the full promise of the Guiding Principles, however, much more had to be done. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic further exposed and exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities that were endemic to many business models. Companies must do better.

JOHN RUGGIE, Former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, said he had had the honour to develop the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights over the course of his six-year mandate as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Business and Human rights. He said four specific features of the Guiding Principles appealed to governments, businesses and civil society, and incentivised them to move this far in a relatively short period of time, where previous efforts had failed. First, they needed to differentiate clearly between the human rights obligations of governments, which were well known, and the responsibilities of business. Second, they established that the basic responsibility of business was to respect human rights. This meant that business should consider and address the rights of those its activities could affect adversely. Third, in turn, this required providing businesses with the conceptual tools and practical guidance enabling them to know and show that they respected human rights. And fourth, finally, this led to the construct of human rights due diligence. It provided a management tool for businesses to assess the human rights risks of their operations and business relationships; to avoid or mitigate actual harm; to adapt their conduct accordingly; and to communicate the results.

In the past decade, the pace of progress had been reinforced by the remarkable rise in environmental, social and governance investing – investors taking into account a company’s environmental, social and governance performance when making investment decisions. This approach had been invented in a joint project between the United Nations Global Compact and the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Division. It now accounted for one third of all assets under management globally. And the “social” aspect of environmental, social and governance investing was all about business and human rights issues. These developments by no means fixed the global challenges of business and human rights. But they did provide a strong foundation for the Working Group and other entities to continue to build upon.

Statements by Panellists

DANTE PESCE, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, stated that for the past year, the Working Group had undertaken a project called UNGPs 10+ to take stock of the first 10 years of implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to assess how far they had come, and to consider what was ahead. The Guiding Principles had without a doubt contributed to significant progress towards promoting respect for human rights in a business context. They had provided a common platform for action that did not exist before 2011. Mr. Pesce emphasised three key points for future Government action: (1) Governments needed to design smart and effective policy and regulatory measures that created level playing fields, but most importantly also led to better outcomes for people affected by business; (2) to drive impact, governments also needed to increase efforts to address policy coherence gaps across government functions and roles; and (3) policy coherence at the multilateral level remained a key challenge.

SHARAN BURROW, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, highlighted that a deterioration of human rights, labour rights, and democratic rights and freedoms was being seen around the world. The International Trade Union Confederation was launching its annual Global Rights Index, which had found that the deterioration in the respect for rights and the increase in oppression and violations was just extraordinary. Governments were not doing the job of protecting their own citizens. It was important to now move from voluntary to mandatory standards: if violations continued to not be sanctioned, the dehumanising exploitation taking place in the economic model would remain. Obscurity and denial of responsibility in the supply chains of too many multinationals were particularly worrying: 94 per cent of supply chains were a hidden workforce. The social contract had absolutely exploded since the 1980s, basically torn up with hyper globalisation – the economic system was not working. Governments had to legislate, and international institutions had to reinvest in human and labour rights, environmental standards as well as a fair competition floor.

MARÍA FERNANDA GARZA, First Vice Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, recalling that the International Chamber of Commerce had been closely involved in the elaboration of the Guiding Principles, said that over the past decade, it had actively supported its members to scale up business implementation of the Guiding Principles. It had also launched a new initiative – the International Chamber of Commerce Working Group on Business and Human Rights – to bring together member companies from its global network to share best practices and experiences, to discuss challenges and opportunities in the business and human rights agenda, and to contribute in a regular way to the UNGPs 10+ project. It had also promoted greater implementation by governments, by calling for the development of robust national action plans. But more work needed to be done here, and by all in the decade ahead. The Guiding Principles referred clearly to the need for a mix of measures – both voluntary initiatives and regulatory frameworks – to ensure implementation by States and business. This mix of measures must be developed in an internationally consistent manner, and in order to accelerate implementation of the Guiding Principles , the “smart mix” must deliver multi-stakeholder policy coherence – and a level playing field for all companies, large or small.

JOAN CARLING, Global Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, said indigenous peoples were often adversely impacted by business operations, mainly in relation to their lands, territories, and resources. One of the strategic outcomes of the Guiding Principles was the development of human rights due diligence policies and guidelines, including the requirement for the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples by business and financial institutions such as the World Bank Group. It was now crucial and urgent for these business actors to move from policy to implementation and set good practices to make positive changes on the ground in the next decade of implementation. However, the majority of indigenous peoples, especially at the grassroots level, remained unaware of the Guiding Principles and of their rights. Eighty-six per cent of indigenous peoples were in Asia and Africa, a majority of whom were not legally recognised as indigenous peoples with collective rights. This was a major barrier in the implementation of the Guiding Principles. The respect and protection of indigenous rights required the legal recognition and protection by States of indigenous rights to lands, territories, and resources, to cultural integrity, and to self-determination. This would provide the right framework for business and enable the proper implementation of human rights due diligence.

Discussion

Speakers welcomed the tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, praising the work of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, and outlining the measures their Governments were taking to encourage companies to safeguard human rights. The Guiding Principles provided an essential benchmark at the global level, and the Council’s endorsement of these principles had been a watershed moment. Responsible business founded on the principles of human rights was key to the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Multiple speakers recognised the need for due diligence with regards to human rights. Looking forward, speakers called for the development of effective capacity for the promotion and implementation of the Guiding Principles at national and international levels. At the ninth Forum on Business and Human Rights, they had seen an increased awareness of the importance of the Guiding Principles and due diligence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speakers said many attacks on human rights defenders were linked to business activities, with private actors either directly perpetrating the abuses or failing to act against imminent and predictable business-related harm. Through their mandates and networks, national human rights institutions could contribute in closing widely acknowledged protection gaps in supply chains which were connected to cross-border business activities, speakers said. The situation was especially concerning in the extractives and agribusiness sectors. Speakers pointed out that corporate actors supplied large volumes of weapons and military equipment to parts of the world experiencing violence and instability. Some speakers said that over the past 10 years, human rights and environmental violations by economic actors had not only continued but also worsened: the voluntary nature of the Guiding Principles had proven insufficient to generate a systemic change.

Concluding Remarks

DANTE PESCE, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, welcomed the fact that there was no intervention saying that the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were useless or counterproductive. Mr. Pesce noted that the capacity and implementation gaps must be addressed: they did not want due diligence to be merely a checkbox – the smart mix must actually work. There were many challenges ahead, but Mr. Pesce said that the collective ambition of all stakeholders working within a common framework of the Guiding Principles gave him hope.

SHARAN BURROW, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, was also impressed that no one opposed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Coherence was required from Governments, and across the United Nations sector – whether it was the World Trade Organization, International Labour Organization or at the national level. Without this there would be no transparency from businesses. They were seeing unprecedented levels of despair because of the lack of trust in institutions – people and their rights mattered.

MARÍA FERNANDA GARZA, First Vice Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, said the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights represented a transformational roadmap. She called on all Governments to commence the development of robust national action plans without delay. New practices must translate into improved human rights performance. These next 10 years must count.

JOAN CARLING, Global Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, welcomed the strong support to fast track the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, the gaps had to be addressed: human rights and environmental defenders had to be protected in the face of harmful business practices. Business as usual had to be transformed to work for the people. Unless they ended impunity by making States and businesses accountable, the objectives of the Guiding Principles would not be achieved.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/06/afternoon-high-commissioner-human-rights-council-it-clear

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