Intel and Article One Symposium in association with the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin
Keynote Address by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Monday, 12 September 2022
Good morning everyone. It is a great pleasure to be with you today for this symposium and I would like to thank Intel and Article One for the invitation and of course the School of Law for hosting.
This symposium today on the inter-related topics of responsible business conduct, innovation and artificial intelligence is an agenda whose moment has come.
However, the interface between business and human rights is not an entirely new topic. In the course of my work, I have seen it in many places, including in Belen in Brazilian Amazon and in Putamayo in Colombia. And in both place the human rights offices I visited had portraits of the Irish patriot, Roger Casement, on their walls. Casement worked on the first human rights report; first in the Congo and then later on abuses by rubber companies in the Amazon region. Back then it took years to document violations and abuses.
Today, with the technology available to us, satellite imagery identifies perpetrators of violations and abuses of human rights in real time, whether it concerns the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or painstaking forensic analysis, such as the work I have seen in The Hague, by organisations such as the International Commission for Missing Persons, which showed me how they identified someone from the massacre in Srebrenica after his remains were found in eighteen different locations.
The fusion of responsible business conduct, innovation and artificial intelligence, which we are discussing today, is one rich in opportunities and challenges for human rights and democracy. In the first instance, it is the first duty of States to promote and protect the rights of their people. International human rights treaty obligations generally fall only on States. However, the role of business is critical. Businesses and companies are increasingly playing, and are expected to play, a pivotal role in the promotion and protection of human rights and are now necessary and natural partners for government in achieving this.
Responsible business conduct is not just the calculus by businesses of human rights risks. It is enlightened self-interest. It is good for the bottom line. Social movements and social media campaigns have sensitised companies to the power of the consumer. But it is much bigger than that. Responsible business conduct is a marriage between resilience and responsibility.
It is about accountability, non-discrimination, equality, participation, empowerment and legality. It is about cultivating consumer confidence, as well as managing, preventing and mitigating the risk of harmful impact. It is about ensuring sustainable development, social and economic inclusion, decent work, living wages, education and effective social safety nets. Supply chains are more resilient when companies act responsibly and respect human rights.
The late Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.” Innovation already plays a vital role in advancing the promotion and protection of human rights through delivering services and empowering people to do what they want to do and learn what they did not think they could learn.
But policy makers also need to understand that innovation does not belong just to the laboratory, but must also be applied to the new processes which are necessary to legislate and regulate more effectively in a fast changing world.
Artificial intelligence has the ability to create new opportunities, increase efficiency, and help maximise human potential. It may significantly expand the availability and quality of data that informs government decisions for the benefit of society. At the same time, it can produce tools of control and surveillance which can be abused by repressive regimes and result in mass data collection which can lead to violations of the right to privacy.
The world is changing fast and we are struggling to keep up; as Thomas Friedman called it, “The Age of Accelerations”. This has never been more the case than over the past couple of years. We have just faced a global pandemic, unlike any we have seen in our lifetime, which has had a profound impact on human rights and was itself a human rights battle for the right to life, health and many others.
It reinforced growing inequality and resulted in an enormous loss of progress in many fields, including education, health, poverty reduction, the fight against child labour and violence against women. It also amplified pre pandemic negative trends in human rights and democracy, including violence against human rights defenders, shrinking civil society space and attempts to undermine women’s rights and gender equality.
This recession in human rights and democracy was exploited by some authoritarian states to further cripple human rights and democracy and we have seen what can only be described as an avalanche of crises over the past two years. This includes Belarus, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, as well as continuing and sustained crises such as Syria and Yemen.
Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has made fighting for human rights and democracy more important and urgent than ever. I was in Ukraine just a few weeks ago, where I saw at first hand the brutality of the aggression. 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 with a stream of unprecedented announcements halting operations in Russia.
This avalanche of crises is coupled with food insecurity, escalating energy costs, drastic developments in climate change, deepening inequality and a populism which feeds on fear.
With such challenges, it is easy to be overwhelmed, but rather than give in to defeatism, we need to recognise we are in fact doing a lot to address these challenges. At the same time, we need to do more and to do it better.
For its part, the European Union sees itself as a leader in the world on human rights and democracy. These values are in the DNA of the EU. They are enshrined in our treaties; they are a condition for membership of the EU and every Member States is required to promote and protect human rights.
All of this is captured and elaborated in the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy from 2020 to 2024 was adopted unanimously by all our 27 Member States in November 2020. The Action Plan is brought to life in the 140 EU Delegations throughout the word, working with the embassies of the Member States. Every day, somewhere in the world, we are observing trials, meeting human rights defenders, demarching governments, supporting projects which range from strengthening democracy and electoral systems and supporting women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence.
We back it up with finance. In the current financial period, the EU has committed €1.5 billion to this work. 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 all tools available to us, including trade agreements, which always contain a clause on human rights – and the schemes of trade preferences, which give free access to the EU market for important from developing countries – on condition that there is compliance with human rights conventions and particularly the various ILO conventions.
We have also adopted some new approaches such as the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which is designed to target individuals, entities and bodies (State and non-State), which are responsible for, involved in, or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they have occurred. As a result, the EU has adopted restrictive measures targeting persons and entities from China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Russia.
Specifically on business and human rights, we strongly support the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As the first globally agreed standard to prevent, address and remedy negative effects on human rights caused by business activities, the Guiding Principles remain the gold standard guidance for States, businesses and individuals on how to ensure respect for human rights during business activity.
To draw all relevant actors together and foster clear, practical action on the Guiding Principles, the best vehicle is a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Fifteen EU Member States have developed such Plans and to support the development of Plans elsewhere, the EU is funding projects in Asia and Latin America, assisting governments to develop National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights and strengthen responsible business conduct.
Strengthening the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles is a priority in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. One element is a comprehensive EU Framework for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. We have already begun work on developing this Framework which will identify actions at national, European and international level to ensure appropriate coordination and coherence.
The EU is also committed to legislative action and the European Commission adopted in February this year 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 contribute to protecting human rights in Europe and beyond. At the same time will bring benefits for consumers, investors and businesses. For consumers and investors the new rules will provide more transparency and allow them to make better informed choices. For businesses and workers they will bring legal certainty and a level playing field.
As a complement to the proposal on due diligence, the Commission is expected to adopt a legislative proposal very soon, may be even this week, to ban products made by forced labour from the EU market. While efforts to reduce forced labour have increased in recent years, the use of forced labour is widespread in the world. The International Labour Organisation estimates that around 25 million people around the world are subject to forced labour. The initiative intends to achieve the elimination of forced-labour products from the EU market.
The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy also recognises the importance of harnessing the potential of new technologies, including artificial intelligence as a priority area. Ethical issues already existed in the use of crime prevention technologies, but the pandemic gave governments a reason to use technology for another purpose: employee monitoring, QR codes, facial recognition, drones, data collection, and more.
The EU is currently developing a Regulation on Artificial Intelligence, with the objective of ensuring that AI systems are designed and used in compliance with human rights. All of this builds on the work the EU has already done.
Over the last few years we have established strong standards of protecting data privacy, for example through the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR regime, or on combatting hate speech online, through the code of conduct with social media platforms. 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. Our objective is to allow both companies and consumers to benefit from digital opportunities.
As you are also aware, there are proposals from a number of countries, from Ecuador, supported by South Africa and others, for an international binding treaty on business and human rights. The European Union is participating in the discussion on these proposals but not yet negotiating because of big differences relating to the proposed scope of the treaty and the lack of a critical mass of countries willing to engage. While we are at a very early stage in the discussions, I sense from some of our bilateral engagements that there may be potential for progress to be made towards a legally binding instrument.
All of the work we do on 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 by means of holistic risk management strategies. This will ultimately benefit the company itself, including its employees, shareholders and stakeholders by creating better commercial relations and increased trust from the public.
Globalisation has changed the world; so too has the organising power of social media and climate change has become very real. That means when someone buys a shirt in any of the shops you would see in a popular shopping area in Brussels, or anywhere else, he or she wants to know where it comes from and the journey it took to get here. Ensuring that the people who made the shirt were paid a decent wage, had good working conditions and that the environment did not suffer a detrimental impact in the process are all common concerns.
Developments in responsible business conduct, innovation and artificial intelligence are all broadening the constituency for human rights. This is a very positive development and the most positive thing about the development is the willingness of business itself to engage with this process, to shape it and to lead it. One of the most encouraging things that I have seen as EU Special Representative for Human Rights is the willingness of business to cooperate with the EU in developing this agenda. This is clearly good for human rights, but it is also good for business.
As the people in this room well know, prosperity in the future
will not be built on the exploited back of poor people in remote parts of the world. It will be built on the rising tide that comes from increased freedom, equality and prosperity. I believe that this event will make a valuable contribution to that discussion, and I thank you for it.
I thank you for the opportunity of contributing to it.