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9th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights
“Preventing business-related human rights abuses: The key to a sustainable future for people and planet”


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Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Geneva, 16 November 2020

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

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 9th United Nations Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.

Greetings to those participating for the first time, especially human rights defenders and representatives of workers, communities and business.

The purpose of this event is to take stock of the broad trends and challenges in adopting and implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011, at the same time as the Council created this annual Forum.

Since its first gathering in 2012, the Forum has become the world’s largest multi-stakeholder event on business and human rights.

I welcome this year’s focus on how the Guiding Principles can fulfil their potential to prevent business-related human rights abuses, which is key to a sustainable future for people and planet.

Colleagues,

We face grave challenges.

A health pandemic that has already claimed over one million lives.

Parallel pandemics of inequality, structural discrimination and misinformation.

An accelerating climate emergency.

Countries that are turning inwards and Governments that are using anti-COVID measures to supress dissent and push restrictive measures that curtail human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Mounting popular discontent and distrust in governments.

And a brutal recession – the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The promise to end poverty by 2030 is slipping away from us. According to the World Bank, the pandemic and the accompanying recession will likely push as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty by the end of the year.

Unemployment is on the rise. The International Labour Organization, ILO, has estimated that, in the second quarter of 2020 alone, the global loss in working hours was equivalent to 495 million full-time jobs.

Although nearly all workers have been affected, some groups have been particularly hard hit.

Data from the ILO has shown, for example, the disproportionate impact on women and revealed “alarming trends that threaten to exacerbate existing disparities and eliminate the modest gains achieved in recent years in terms of gender equality in the labour market.”

Many workers throughout supply chains, especially those employed in the informal sector, have faced particular hardships due, in part, to lack of social protection.

We are facing a disquieting present and an uncertain future to which there can be only one alternative: to build a better future.

And how can the business and human rights agenda help us achieve that?

Just a few weeks ago, my Office issued guidance on business and human rights and how the Guiding Principles apply in times of COVID-19.

It highlighted two fundamental points.

First, the protection of workers and other affected stakeholders, particularly those in the most precarious situations, should be at the core of States’ measures to support companies during the crisis.

In addition, all businesses have an independent responsibility to respect human rights, even in times of economic hardship and public health crisis, and regardless of whether and how governments are meeting their own obligations.

Both the State duty and the corporate responsibility are set out clearly in the UN Guiding Principles, which apply at all times and in all contexts.

I know businesses have been facing difficult decisions. Small and medium-sized enterprises, and businesses in the informal economy, in particular, have been hit the hardest. Many have perished, others are struggling to survive.

Yet, despite difficulties, governments, many businesses and investors have taken steps to safeguard people in their responses to the crisis.

Some global firms have committed to receive and pay orders from their manufacturers rather than invoke force majeure clauses, helping secure the livelihoods of workers throughout their supply chain. Global food and medicine supply chains have been ensured despite the market shocks.

Businesses in the garment, pharmaceutical and health industries have supported governments in their response to the health crisis. Companies in the telecommunication sector have supported access to modern technology platforms to ensure tele-education. Some social media companies have improved flagging systems identifying false or misleading claims that could adversely impact individuals or communities. And corporate policies have been launched to end sexual abuse and promote a gender-balanced distribution of care work

It is encouraging to see more companies recognizing their corporate responsibility to respect human rights, even during the pandemic.

Yet, sadly, we still see unprincipled business practices, which continue to generate preventable and unacceptable human suffering.

Many workers have been fired without just compensation. Others have been exposed to health hazards because of company failures to take the necessary safety precautions. The health of entire communities, including vulnerable indigenous peoples, has been threatened as a result of ongoing business operations, particularly in the mining and oil sectors. Environmental safeguards and requirements on stakeholder participation and consultation have been evaded or ignored.

The pandemic and responding government measures are also affecting the work of human rights and environmental defenders raising concerns about the negative impacts of businesses activities.

I pay tribute to all those who have suffered attacks and lost their lives for speaking up in defence of their communities. While some companies have been raising their voices to prevent reprisals and publicly defend the work of human rights defenders, it is utterly deplorable that government authorities and corporations are behind many of those attacks

The harm inflicted by irresponsible business practices on individuals, communities and the environment, is often serious –when not irreversible–, but it is, generally, preventable.

To build a better future, we must double-down on respect for human rights, not retreat.

The lead up to the 10th anniversary of the Guiding Principles next year presents us with a unique opportunity to take stock of our collective efforts to date and to chart a more ambitious path forward.

In that regard, I welcome the UNGPs10plus project, by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

Implementing the Guiding Principles can both improve societies’ response to the ongoing pandemic and help us address other crises, including the climate emergency and systematic inequalities.

Through its constructive dialogue, I am confident this Forum can help us advance towards this objective and our overall goal of achieving sustainable development for all.

Thank you.