Remarks at Launch of “Business and Human Rights in Ireland: Bencharking Firm Compliance with UN Guiding Principles”, Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin

8th November, Dublin

Good afternoon everyone. It is a great pleasure to be with you here today. Thank you for the invitation. The study before us today is a welcome contribution to the operationalisation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, on how compliance of the Principles is working at a very practical level and what more needs to be done.

Eight years after the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council, is a timely moment to take stock of implementation and explore how we can ensure more awareness, better compliance with the Principles and greater respect and protection for human rights in the context of business.

Business enterprises, companies and corporations big and small throughout the world can have a significant impact on people, not only through the products or services they offer, or employment that they create, but also in relation to working conditions, environmental impact, healthy, innovation, education, training and of course human rights. States are the primary actors responsible for promoting and protesting human rights. But businesses also have a responsibility to respect, manage, prevent and address human rights risks and negative impacts in their operations, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and human rights.

The UN Guiding Principles are the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity, and they continue to provide the internationally-accepted framework for enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights. As Professor John Ruggie, the main author of the UN Principles, has said, they are “a transformational roadmap to a future where the billions of people whose lives are impacted by corporate activities are treated with respect for their dignity and fundamental welfare – a world where human beings and corporations alike can thrive and prosper.”

Human rights due diligence is part of that roadmap, as good due diligence work is not only the right thing to do for businesses, but also the smart thing to do. It strengthens corporate risk management overall and helps meet growing expectations and pressure from consumers, employees, investors and regulators. It also makes sense in a wider setting, as it contributes toward the environment in which responsible business can thrive by strengthening good governance and the rule of law.

The EU is a world leader in promoting business and human rights and the UN Guiding Principles are at the heart of our action in this increasing important area.

In March this year, the European Commission published an overview of progress on Corporate Social Responsibility, Responsible Business Conduct and Business & Human Rights. The publication provides an overview of actions across different policy areas, from development to agriculture to labour rights to justice. We calculated that over EU 200 initiatives relevant to Corporate Social Responsibility, Responsible Business Conduct and Business & Human Right have been delivered since 2011, with a very strong track record in this area using a smart mix of voluntary and regulatory measures.

The EU has made substantial progress, including at legislative level.   For example, the EU Directive on Non-Financial Reporting requires companies with more than 500 employees to disclose non-financial information in their management reports. This includes the due diligence process that they implement with regard to environment and social issues, human rights, bribery and corruption. The scope includes approximately 6,000 large companies and groups across the EU.   First reports were submitted at the end of 2018.

16 EU Member States out of 21 countries globally have adopted National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights. This is a strong signal as the European Union is the home base of many multinationals with global value chains and potential human rights impacts. We can build on this experience to share good practices with our partners which are developing their National Action Plans. Just a week ago, Thailand announced the adoption of its National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. It becomes the first country in Asia to do so. Kenya became the first African country to adopt a National Action Plan in June this year.

My role as EU Special Representative for Human Rights is to promote the EU’s human rights external policy and there is much we are doing externally to underline the importance of the UN Guiding Principles. The EU promotes the UN Guiding Principles on Business and human rights through the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy and through EU trade and development policies and programmes. The Action Plan places special emphasis on ownership by local institutions and improving policy coherence. It sets out a number of actions agreed by the EU and its Member States to implement the Guiding Principles including promoting the adoption of National Action Plans by partner countries and sharing experience and best practices in the development of National Action Plans.

 EU trade policy is based on human rights and we use it to promote legislation protecting human rights and core labour standards. All our free-trade agreements have trade and sustainable development provisions with commitments on core labour and environment standards. The latest generation free trade agreements also have provisions on Corporate Social Responsibility and Responsible Business Conduct.  No other organisation does that.

The Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) scheme is one of the EU’s tools to promote human rights and sustainable development in vulnerable countries. GSP+ provides additional preferences to countries, with the condition that they effectively implement the 27 core international conventions on human rights and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance. Intensive monitoring and enhanced engagement with selected beneficiary countries enables the EU to impact on these countries’ political reforms.

The EU can show a good track record in terms of addressing human rights abuses by European companies in third countries, for instance through sectorial binding rules on human rights due diligence for European companies operating abroad (non-financial reporting, conflict minerals, timber) or measures to ensure access to remedy for victims (victim’s rights directive, Brussels I, Rome II).  The Brussels I Regulation for example makes it possible to take EU-domiciled companies to European courts for damages caused and/or arising outside the EU. These regulations help victims assert their rights in cross-border cases.

We work with partners at multilateral, regional and national level to ensure the full implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. The EU is actively engaged at UN level supporting various work streams including the work of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The full realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is also a strong priority for the EU and we support the work of the UN Global Compact. This initiative works with companies globally to drive business awareness and action in support of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and to that end, to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.

We are providing technical support to develop National Action Plans in Latin America and to improve responsible supply chain in six countries in Asia. A new project to support the development of National Action Plans in Asia will start at the end of this year and we could envisage a similar initiative in Africa.

With the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, we are supporting Human Rights Defenders including in context of ‘land grabbing’, and indigenous peoples ‘rights. In 2019, a global call of the European Instrument for Human Rights dedicated €5million to support civil society organisations working on business and human rights. The EU is also frequently monitoring human rights defenders’ trials and/or mediation processes involving corporate abuse.

Our EU Delegations also play an active role in connecting stakeholders on business and human rights. For example, the Brazil Delegation has been organising an annual Corporate Social Responsibility event, the last one in Rio de Janeiro in May 2019, in partnership with the industrial community and associations.

Because we can always do better, the EU institutions are also committed to raise awareness of EU staff and train EU delegations on the UN Guiding Principles, we have started to train political and operational staff in EU delegations and are going to continue develop knowledge and further explore the role of EU Delegations in the promotion of the business and human rights agenda.

Regional organisations can play an important role to foster progress at national level on the implementation of the Guiding Principles, by facilitating the exchange of good practice, promoting peer learning, and harmonising regulation among others.   The Council of Europe is working on a platform to exchange good practices on the National Action Plans and will present it at the next Business and Human Rights Forum in Geneva in a couple of weeks. The discussion will focus on recent efforts made by several regional organisations to encourage races to the top on business and human rights amongst their member states, alongside initiatives sharing experience with other regions in the world and supporting National Action Plans. It will also offer a discussion on how regional organisations can best work with their members and partners in the pursuit of a race to the top.

A possible legally binding instrument on business and human rights is under discussion in the Human Rights Council. The proposal was put forward several years ago by Ecuador supported by South Africa. So far, major industrialised countries have not been part of the process and only transnational activities are targeted. The European Union fully agrees with the need for better prevention of human rights abuse, and access to remedy for victims and believes in the added value of a legally binding instrument. A fit-for-purpose instrument has the potential to fill a gap in the current architecture of international protection of human rights, bringing a globally enforceable access-to-remedy tool.

The EU has consistently stated that the future treaty’s scope should include all businesses, not only transnational ones. We want something that will work and have real practical action, not just cover some entities. We believe that discussion cannot be limited to transnational corporations, as many abuses are committed by enterprises at the domestic level, or passed along the supply chain.

There have been recent proposals to widen the application of the proposed treaty beyond transnational companies, and I welcome that. The EU participated in the most recent discussions in Geneva on this issue and will continue assess the desirability of a legally binding instrument.

No one is suggesting that better business practises will solve every human rights issue. But to devise effective solutions to climate change, inequalities and digital challenges, we need business actors along with governments to step up, embrace their responsibilities and participate – and this will require a smart mix of measures, both regulatory and voluntary. That is why the UN Guiding Principles are so important – they are benchmarks against which specific tools that are adopted can be measured by all stakeholders. They need the engagement of governments, business enterprise, civil society and other stakeholders. The EU will continue to support and advocate for their full implementation to ensure the full protection and respect for human rights and access to remedy for victims. We need to work in partnership together using practical tools and the Un Guiding Principles provide a comprehensive, inclusive foundation that we can build on going forward.