Business and Human Rights – Opening Remarks
Galway Business and Human Rights Symposium 2021
Taking Stock, Looking Forward
29 April 2021
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Thank you very much Siobhan for that warm welcome and let me congratulate you on your appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, as this is the first public event that we are doing together since that appointment.
I want to say hello to everyone, Professor Shane Darcy, Professor Geraint Howells and all of the distinguished panellists that you have assembled. It is a particular pleasure to be attending an event at my alma mater for which I have great affection. It is just a pity that it cannot be in person. I am of course a little bit biased about my alma mater. Let me be perfectly objective about it; NUI Galway is one of the best universities in the world. And the Irish Centre for Human Rights is known the world over for its excellence in the study and promotion of human rights, international criminal law and humanitarian law.
Graduates of the National University of Ireland Galway are now human rights defenders and ambassadors in international, governmental and civil society organisations around the world. And as both a Galway man and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, I am very proud of your work. This conference today is very timely, is highly relevant in today’s world and I am very honoured to make some opening remarks before the distinguished panel you have assembled.
Since the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council 10 years ago, the area of business and human rights has grown in salience, as has scrutiny by the international community as a whole. Why is this? Because business and human rights is about the need to manage both the benefits and burdens of globalisation and ensure sustainable development with human rights at the centre. It is about accountability, non-discrimination, equality, participation, empowerment and legality. Expectations about the role of businesses in defending all these values has increased across the world.
For governments, business and human rights is at the heart of a new social contract they need to construct for and with their people. This includes social and economic inclusion, decent work, living wages, education and effective social safety nets.
For businesses, respecting human rights is good for their bottom line, because it is about building trust and cultivating consumer confidence, as well as managing, preventing and mitigating the risk of harmful impact. It is increasingly recognised that responsible business conduct cannot be confined to just one company department where plans often made and then are consigned to gather dust on a shelf. It must permeate all action by a business and its supply chain. This is because all company functions interact with human rights every day.
For individuals, it is about being treated with respect and dignity, making sure that business activities do not have negative impacts on their lives, and it is about ensuring there is access to remedy, no matter where or who they are and where harm has occurred.
By bringing together states, business and individuals, the UN Guiding Principles set out a transformative, mutually reinforcing dynamic. This encompasses a smart mix of measures, including effective legislation and regulation to protect against human rights abuses.
This past year has brought the importance of business and human rights even more sharply into focus. The pandemic has magnified every inequality in our society. It has worsened existing problems and generated its own human rights challenges.
The importance of responsible business practices has been heightened as the links between increased socio-economic vulnerability, discrimination and human rights abuses, such as forced labour, have become more evident. Worldwide, 152 million children are still in child labour. And this has further increased during the pandemic. Studies have shown that a one per cent rise in poverty can lead to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour. During the pandemic, many families have resorted to sending their children to work to cope with food and basic needs. This is why under the new EU Strategy on the rights of the child, we have committed to working towards making supply chains of EU companies free of child labour.
The health crisis has created a new operating context for business with implications for health and safety and new dilemmas around how to handle human rights. While many businesses have acted responsibly, ensuring that labour rights are respected and their workers’ salaries are paid, others have resorted to cost cutting and respect for human rights has slipped down the scale in the battle to protect the bottom line.
Despite these challenges, the pandemic has also clearly shown us the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. To protect life and health, we need to ensure all rights, including adequate housing, education, access to safe drinking water and sanitation and many others. I am convinced that placing human rights at the centre of our response will not only help us mitigate the impact of the crisis and make it more manageable, but it will help us to face future crises with greater resilience. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are, and will be, central to that effort.
Since the adoption of the Guiding Principles, they have gained extensive support from States, civil society, and increasingly from the business community. In many cases, this has led to concrete actions to promote and implement the Guiding Principles, in particular by the development of National Action Plans and due diligence legislation and policies.
As many of you know, as part of its mandate to promote the Guiding Principles, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights is undertaking a project to chart a course for a decade of action on business and human rights. The UN Working Group will present its findings at the Human Rights Council in June. This effort will take stock of achievements to date, assess existing gaps and challenges, and, more importantly, develop an ambitious roadmap for implementing the Guiding Principles between now and 2030. The work of the UN Working Group has been very useful for us within the EU, to reflect on progress achieved and possible future actions to intensify and increase implementation of the Guiding Principles, inside and outside the EU.
So what is the EU doing on business and human rights and the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles? Since 2015, 15 EU Member States have developed National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, the most of any region in the world. The EU has also developed a body of legislation and measures on business and human rights and responsible business conduct.
This includes mandatory due diligence obligations for timber and certain minerals, as well as legislation on non-financial reporting for companies. This requires large listed companies, banks and insurance companies to disclose information on respect for human rights, environmental, social, employee and anti-corruption matters. We also have instruments to facilitate access to remedy for victims. In addition, several EU Member States have adopted or are preparing legislation establishing mandatory human rights due diligence obligations for companies.
The EU also supports the development of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights outside the Union. Our more than 140 EU delegations around the world are actively engaged in raising awareness on the Guiding Principles with governments and companies, as well as empowering civil society to advance the implementation of the Guiding Principles. And in partnership with others including the UN, ILO and OECD, we are supporting several projects in Latin America and Asia, which assist governments, and businesses in concrete actions to promote the implementation of the Guiding Principles as well as Responsible Business Conduct.
The EU has regular human rights dialogues with partner countries and monitors the implementation of international conventions, particularly by countries beneficiaries of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+). This is the scheme by which countries can get access to the EU market on a tariff free basis. Issues relating to business and human rights, including labour rights and child labour, are often part of those discussions.
Business and human rights has featured in my political engagements and discussions, for example during visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar, and during my last trip before the pandemic to Qatar. During the Qatar visit, I had the opportunity of visiting the construction site of the Lusail stadium for the 2022 World Cup, where I met workers, their representatives and assess their working and housing conditions.
Looking ahead, our work until the end of 2024 on business and human rights will be guided by the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which was unanimously approved by all 27 Member States of the European Union in November last year. The main objective in our approach to business and human rights in the Action Plan is to strengthen the implementation of the Guiding Principles and our engagement with partner countries, as well as the business sector. We cannot implement this Action Plan alone. Many actions are based on joint work and all are based on cooperation and partnership.
EU Delegations around the world, together with Member States Embassies are currently finalising individual country strategies to translate the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy from paper to practice. Business and the private sector were part of the consultations undertaken to formulate these strategies, as well as the consultations we have with civil society.
Actions include supporting the development and implementation of National Action Plans on business and human rights, in particular through regional projects to build the capacity of governments. We will strengthen engagement with the private sector to develop a more compelling “business case” for effectively implementing the Guiding Principles, so they are mainstreamed in the business community, including SMEs, not only frontrunner businesses and investors. Indeed we see growing demands for regulation in this area, including to ensure legal certainty and a level playing field. As the UN Guiding Principles are the main internationally agreed roadmap for business and human rights, we will also work to strengthen convergence around the Guiding Principles at multilateral level.
We will increase engagement with the business sector on upholding and promoting human rights, anti-corruption measures and best practices on responsible business conduct, corporate social responsibility, due diligence, accountability and access to remedies.
I have been meeting regularly with the private sector, including companies and the Responsible Business Alliance, to discuss responsible business conduct, as well as the new EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy and I intend to deepen that engagement.
The Action Plan includes as a priority to develop a comprehensive EU framework on the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles to enhance coordination and coherence of EU action. We have started the internal reflections on how to develop this exercise, which will be decided in the coming months. The UN roadmap for the next decade for implementation of the Guiding Principles will be a valuable contribution to that reflection.
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has announced an ambitious initiative on sustainable corporate governance by June this year, which will introduce mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence across value chains. The initiative has an important external dimension as supply chains most often originate in third countries, and can contribute to improving respect for human rights by companies worldwide.
This is an ambitious timeframe and proposal and the initiative has attracted high expectation and broad support among EU stakeholders, including the European Parliament, civil society organisations and the business community. Once adopted, it will be the first regime in the world imposing binding due diligence obligations across sectors.
The move towards mandatory standards reflect a growing consensus among citizens, governments and companies on the need for binding rules to making sure that EU companies, and indirectly also third-country companies, respect human and labour rights and the environment in their operations abroad.
Related to that, a possible legally binding instrument on business and human rights has been the subject of discussion for some years among States in Geneva and I know this will be part of your discussions today. Let me be clear – the EU believes in the potential of a legally binding instrument to lead to globally agreed standards. In this spirit, we have participated in discussions in Geneva and we continue to promote a realistic approach to an instrument that can provide a higher level of protection for victims and a global level playing field for companies.
We appreciate the efforts made by Ecuador, and I welcome the presence of the Ecuadorian Ambassador at today’s event, which presented the proposal, but we believe that there is still considerable work to be done to create a legally sound, implementable and enforceable instrument and one that gets the necessary traction amongst UN members. I note the recent discussions amongst scholars on possible avenues in this regard. If we want it to work, getting States to sign up is crucial.
Business and human rights is now one of the fast developing areas in the human rights agenda, in parallel with the issues of technology and human rights. The UN Guiding Principles were indeed ground-breaking 10 years ago. Your symposium today will take stock of what has been achieved, what needs to be done and what the future may hold for business and human rights. As reflected in the EU’s own Action Plan, business and human rights has moved up the agenda for governments, business, civil society and individuals and we will hear more on this topic certainly in the coming years.
Much has been achieved but we have a lot of work ahead in the coming years. However, as Seamus Heaney once said, “We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us.” I look forward to the discussions today.
And I thank you for the opportunity to contribute.