Responsible Business Alliance Annual Conference

Responsible Business Alliance Annual Conference

Address by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore


Thank you to the Responsible Business Alliance for the invitation to address you today to talk about what the EU is doing on business and human rights.

Business and human rights has become more important in recent years; and is now top of the agenda in any discussions on human rights and in my engagements with third countries around the world.  The State, of course has the primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of its people, but the role of business is also essential.  Businesses and companies are increasingly playing, and indeed, are expected to play, a critical role in the promotion and protection of human rights.

I want to commend the Responsible Business Alliance on its efforts to advance human rights in global supply chains worldwide.  Your work to promote standards, accountability and provide real practical human rights advice and tools for your members is invaluable.

This is both a principled and a pragmatic approach, because ultimately, responsible business conduct is good for the bottom line.  It simply makes good business sense to protect the rights of workers, to promote good working conditions, decent wages, education and social protection, and to prevent any harmful impact from business activities.  This aids sustainable development, social and economic inclusion and makes supply chains more resilient.

But, responsible business conduct faces a challenging and changing global environment.  The human and financial costs of COVID-19 are still with us and its impact will reverberate for some time to come.  It has exacerbated poverty and inequality and intensified pre-pandemic backsliding in human rights and democracy.  Climate change is having a very real and devastating impact.  Massive displacement is occurring.  Food insecurity is growing.  Conflicts are spreading and we are grappling with the impact of technology on people’s lives.

The growth in disinformation during the pandemic has continued and is being used to fuel autocratic agendas and question the universality of human rights.  All of this is compounded by a deluge of crises over the past two years.  Belarus, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, as well as continuing and sustained crises such in the Middle East are just a few.

The senseless unprovoked aggression by Russia in Ukraine has already caused enormous suffering and has dangerous and disturbing implications for the sovereignty of all States and the integrity of the UN Charter.  There is a clear need for accountability given the widespread violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law.  Companies have played an important leadership role through the rapid and decisive action by investors halting operations in Russia.

This challenging environment demands decisive and strong action on human rights.  And the European Union is determined to play its part.  Human rights and democracy are enshrined in our treaties; they are a condition for membership of the EU and every Member State is required to promote and protect human rights.  The EU was founded, not just to foster economic prosperity.  The protection of human rights and the preservation of peace were central to the establishment of the Union.

We have an EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy, agreed to unanimously by all 27 Member States, which recognises and responds to the current global environment.  It is brought to life in each region and country through our 140 EU Delegations throughout the word and the embassies of our Member States.  This is done though a range of practical actions, including by working with civil society and human rights defenders, observing trials and supporting projects that range from strengthening democracy and electoral systems and supporting women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The Action Plan is reinforced with financial muscle.  In the current financial period, the EU has committed €1.5 billion for the promotion of human rights and democracy.  And my role as EU Special Representative for Human Rights is to guide the implementation of the Plan and to meet with governments and others to advance it.

We use our trade agreements to help advance human rights and democracy – they always contain a clause on human rights.  And we use our trade preferences, the Generalised Scheme of Preferences and GSP+, which give free access to the EU market for imports from developing countries, on condition that there is compliance with human rights conventions and particularly the various ILO conventions.  GSP monitoring includes exchanges of information, dialogue and visits, and it involves various stakeholders, including civil society.  And preferences can be removed if beneficiary countries fail to respect human rights and labour rights. This has happened in the past, for example in 2020 with Cambodia.

Of course, the European Union strongly supports the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  The Guiding Principles remain the gold standard guidance for States, businesses and individuals on how to ensure respect for human rights during business activity and to provide remedy if harm is done.    Strengthening the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles is a priority in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

One element in the Plan is a comprehensive EU Framework for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles and work has begun to development the Framework.  Fifteen EU Member States have developed National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights and more are in progress.  We also fund the development of Plans elsewhere, notably in Asia and Latin America.

The EU is also committed to legislative action and in February this year the European Commission adopted a legislative proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence.  This will require companies operating in the EU market to identify and address the human rights and environmental impacts of their operations and value chains.  The new rules will bring benefits for consumers, investors and businesses, through legal certainty, a level playing field and more transparency.

As a complement to the proposal on due diligence, just last month, the Commission adopted a legislative proposal on forced labour.  This prohibits products made with forced labour in the EU market.  It covers all products, without targeting specific companies or industries, irrespective of where they have been made.  Our ban will apply to domestic products, exports and imports alike.  This comprehensive approach is important because an estimated 27.6 million people are in forced labour worldwide.

Related to this work, the Council has also given its approval for a new Digital Services Act Package, which aims to provide for a clear set of due-diligence obligations for online platforms and a new Digital Markets Act, which aims to ensure a level playing field for online platforms, or gatekeepers.  The Package is intended to ensure both companies and consumers to benefit from digital opportunities.

As you may be aware, a possible legally binding instrument on business and human rights has been the subject of discussion for some years among States in Geneva.  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.

All of this work and all of the work the EU does in relation to business and human rights will have an impact for companies, but it will also bring important benefits.  While companies will need to improve the management of their human rights risks in their value chains and build production processes with reduced adverse impacts, better identification and management of risk allows companies to increase their resilience and improve their long-term value.  This will result in better commercial relations and increased trust from the public.

It is greatly encouraging to see more and more companies invested in making human rights part of everyday business.  Dialogue, cooperation and sharing lessons are crucial to enhancing that effort. This conference is an important contribution and I thank you again for the opportunity to contribute.