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12th Atlanta Business & Human Rights Conference
Engaging Business Forum


Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

7 October 2020

Mr. James Quincey,
Ms. Lisa Chang,
Mr. Brent Wilton,
Mr. Guy Ryder,
Distinguished participants,

I am pleased to address you today, at this time of multiple and massive global crises.

All of them threaten human lives and human rights.

A climate catastrophe.

A growing infodemic of disinformation.

A pandemic that has already claimed one million lives.

A brutal recession – the deepest since World War II, threatening to push well over 100 million people into extreme poverty.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated many underlying human rights failings and gaps.

Gaps that have made societies extremely vulnerable -- just as comorbidities make individuals more vulnerable to the virus.

The economic situation is indeed dire.

We face the broadest collapse in incomes since 1870 and may witness the first rise in global poverty since 1998.

According to the International Labour Organization global income from work declined by more than 10 percent in the first three quarters of the year, and the figure is as high as 15 percent in middle-income countries.

There was a 14 per cent drop in global working hours during the second quarter of 2020. 

Still according to the ILO, 34 million jobs were lost due to the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A new World Bank analysis shows that the pandemic threatens hard-won gains in health and education over the past decade, especially in the poorest countries.

And as the Secretary-General said, “the global hunger crisis is moving into a new and dangerous phase.”

The pandemic is a human tragedy, threatening both peace and development. It is clear that addressing it requires more civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, not less.

In a context of escalating suffering and turmoil across the world, human rights principles, norms and actions offer effective solutions to build stronger resilience and prevent social, economic and political instability.

Policies that deliver universal and equal access to social protections and health care; institutions which promote respect for the views and rights of all members of society; and laws that require accountable policing and access to justice.

This devastating crisis has given us an extraordinary opportunity.
We cannot go back to the so-called normality that made our societies so vulnerable, fragile and unequal.  

We must build back better.

And building back better means strengthening our commitment to all human rights for all and to the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is our blueprint.

These are times of unprecedented challenges. They require unprecedented action.

The business sector is a crucial partner in these efforts.

As the Secretary-General said in his video message to the SDG Business Forum, “in our 75th anniversary year, the United Nations is not interested in business as usual. We need business unusual: business that is stepping up and taking responsibility for today and tomorrow, assessing the long-term costs and benefits of its activities; working in partnership with civil society, young people, academia and more to create strong communities and resilient societies.”

Indeed, business policies, operations and decisions must have human rights at their core.

At all times. 

A human rights-based approach to recovery supports greater social and economic resilience. It is the foundation of prosperity and political stability. And it protects vulnerable people from the worst impacts of crises.

While COVID-19 and its impacts present unparalleled challenges, the response can and must be grounded in existing human rights standards, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 
The Guiding Principles can be a guide to businesses – and governments – on how to move towards a sustainable social and economic recovery based on human rights and in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Respecting human rights is a responsibility of every business. By preventing and mitigating the risk of any harm, companies can play a wider role in promoting human rights in their communities and societies, fostering broad positive outcomes of their business model.

The practical way to fulfil this responsibility is employing human rights due diligence processes to identify, assess and address risks generated by global challenges, as well as to shape a relevant response, individually and in collaboration with other stakeholders. That is both the ethically correct course in its own right, as well as sustainably optimizing the financial bottom line. The two imperatives, truly, go hand in hand.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents no exception. Companies should take all necessary steps to prevent and mitigate any potential human rights impacts from their responses to this crisis. Any measure a company takes in response to, or during, the crisis, such as changing orders, should be subject to a careful assessment of its human rights impacts.

Human rights due diligence will also help companies to identify the impact of COVID-19 on their supply and demand chains systems.

Different companies face different challenges. Labor rights abuses is a particular concern in the clothing sector, through its supply chain. During the pandemic, risks to the right to health of both employees and customers may be particularly relevant for companies in the hospitality sector.

All businesses should comply with international labour standards and ensure the health and safety of their workers, particularly those required to work during the pandemic.

With these measures, companies can contribute to minimizing the negative impact. However, to fully meet their human rights responsibilities, businesses must consider all those affected by their activities. This often includes day laborers, temporary employees, non-contract workers and people in other forms of precarious work situations, as well as those working throughout supply chains, customers and communities.

Companies are expected to play their role as societal actor, contributing to economic prosperity, to sustainable livelihoods and supporting the development of the rule of law through their business operations.

Governments have the responsibility to ensure a regulatory environment in which companies can conduct responsible business. Yet, even where such environment is not in place, companies have both the ability and the responsibility to ensure their own operations and business relationships respect human rights.

And through their practice and activism, businesses can -- and should -- be strong advocates for human rights.

We need your partnership and collaboration to build the future we want -- one that is prosperous, just and sustainable.

More and more companies are committed to their human rights responsibilities and have engaged practically, in relation to their activities and their value chains, even in times of crisis.

Last September, at the Latin America Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, I heard several examples of responsible business good practices, signaling new commitments from States and private sector.

It was clear to me that the question in Latin America is no longer whether companies conduct human rights due diligence but how to do it effectively.  I am certain that in other regions there are also signs of good practices.

In that respect, the role of large or experienced companies has been recognized. They can -- and should -- introduce incentive structures and conditionalities within their supply chains to encourage the implementation of human rights due diligence.

It was also encouraging to see that companies with thousands of suppliers shared their experience with traceability of raw materials and supply chain mapping.

As companies -- and their workers, consumers and communities -- continue to deal with the impacts of COVID-19, it will be important to exchange lessons learned and best practices.

And, as always, it is crucial that human rights be at the core of business decisions.

Dear participants,

There is a growing number of national and international debates around mandatory measures to ensure business respect for human rights.

Besides the ongoing intergovernmental process for the development of a legally binding instrument, a number of governments have recently  taken measures to encourage or require companies and corporate groups to carry out mandatory human rights due diligence.

Many of you will be familiar with these measures. These include the 2017 French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law; the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts; the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act; and the EU Non-financial Reporting Directive, among numerous others also introducing mandatory human rights reporting regimes in different forms.

There seems to be a particular momentum behind proposals for similar legislative developments in a number of European Union member states and within the EU institutions. It suggests a considerable interest for reform and for accountability when it comes to upholding human rights in the context of business activities.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out a clear expectation for a “smart mix” of implementation measures. That means that States should look at all types of measures, including international and national, voluntary and mandatory, to identify the most effective combination that will support the advance of accountability in the context of business activities.

While progress has been made in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles over the past few years, applying effective mandatory regulations alongside effective policy measures and incentives is still necessary to bring more companies around to meeting their human rights responsibilities.

In other words, I believe that States should consider adopting regulatory measures to level the playing field for companies to carry out mandatory human rights due diligence. But such measures cannot stand on their own. They need to be part of a broader framework of supportive infrastructure including enforcement, policies, incentives and guidance.

Our newfound awareness of the fragility of global supply chains exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the extreme vulnerability of many of the people working in them, should also increase demands for legislation of this kind, in particular from trade unions and civil society organisations.

However, there is not one single model for mandatory human rights due diligence regimes. Business and economic activity around the world is too varied and diverse for that. But different solutions can be found that respect the shared commonalities of expectation that I have set out.

For a productive and meaningful discussion on the matter, all actors – policy-makers, legislators, businesses, trade unions, civil society organisations and other stakeholders – need to be clear about the different design options available and the trade-offs between different choices.

My Office has developed guidance setting out the different modalities of human rights due diligence. I encourage you to use it and engage in constructive debates about these important legal and policy decisions.

Analyzing all options is essential to maximize the positive impact of regulatory measures while mitigating the risks of any unwanted consequences. This is a time for solidarity – and concrete steps.

Business respect for human rights is a key component in the global efforts to build back better.

Indeed, full commitment of the private sector to human rights and good governance will be essential to overcome this crisis and to sustainably rebuild better societies for present and future generation. In that sense, the crisis has provided us a vital opportunity to future proof our business models against inevitable coming crises in other areas.

Moreover, I call on you to strengthen global partnerships and your engagement with the multilateral system, through representative organizations. We must all create a conducive global environment for decent work, investment, and sustainability.

Thank you.