Time to act: Governments urged to improve record on business and human rights ahead of major global forum

GENEVA November 21, 2019 – Governments are failing in their duty to protect people from human rights abuses by business and cannot put off action any longer, UN human rights experts have warned ahead of the largest global gathering on business and human rights.

“It’s time for governments to act and make real progress on ending business-related human rights abuses. This means commitments, plans and action – not just statements of intent,” said the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, as 2,500 participants prepare to gather in Geneva for the 2019 Forum on Business and Human Rights from 25-27 November 2019.

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“Governments have a duty, not an option, to protect people against business-related harms. They are simply not doing enough at the moment. Despite positive steps by some States, we have to call into question the effectiveness of current efforts overall and the lack of concrete action.

“Too many States still have records that are simply not good enough, and have large gaps in the protection they offer.”

The experts highlighted the responsibility of businesses to respect all human rights. This means making a policy commitment, conducting human rights due diligence and remedying adverse impacts, in order to prevent, mitigate and address the risks of labour abuse and trafficking in supply chains, environmental pollution, and attacks against human rights defenders.

“The lack of government leadership is reflected in governance gaps and a lack of policy coherence at all levels – national, regional and global – which results in fundamental challenges to ensuring that the human rights and dignity of all are upheld in the context of business activities,” the experts said.

“This year’s theme, ‘Time to act: Governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights’, reflects concerns that governments from all parts of the world are lagging behind, despite encouraging signs in some countries such as legislation requiring companies to exercise human rights due diligence and address modern slavery in supply chains as well as the development of national action plans on business and human rights.” 

States are being urged to strengthen regulations and improve policy coherence. They are also urged to lead by example in their own economic roles as owners (state-owned enterprises are a significant feature of the global economy), purchasers, trade financiers and investors, including in third countries. 

“If States are serious about getting their own house in order and protecting people from harms arising as a result of business activities, this means setting clear expectations and creating incentives for responsible business conduct,” the Working Group said.

The Forum, to be opened by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attracts participants from States, UN bodies and agencies, civil society organisations, companies and business associations, as well as human rights defenders and representatives of communities affected by business activities.

It addresses State obligations, business responsibility and the need for access to effective remedy when abuse has occurred. Victims in many cases are still left without a remedy because States have failed to act.

“The three pillars set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – the State duty to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the need for access to effective remedy when harm occurs – are essential parts of building a sustainable global economy in which all people are treated with dignity and which leaves no one behind,” the experts said.

“These pillars are the foundation for all our efforts to end business-related human rights abuses. Government action needs to address the full range of measures, from prevention to remediation.”

The 2019 Forum agenda will include discussion on a “smart mix” of measures – finding the right combination of national and international, mandatory and voluntary steps that will foster business respect for human rights.

*The UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (known as the Working Group on Business and Human Rights) was established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 to promote worldwide dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Working Group is composed of five independent experts, of balanced geographical representation. Its current members are: Ms Elżbieta Karska (Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Surya Deva, Mr. Dante Pesce, and Ms Anita Ramasastry.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 (resolution 17/4), provide the authoritative global standard for action to safeguard human rights in a business context, clarifying what is expected of governments and companies to prevent and address impacts on human rights arising from business activity.

The Working Group is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.