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UN Forum 2015: Speeches & presentations

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16 December 2015

Margaret Jungk closing plenary remarks

Author: Margaret Jungk, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

Chairperson, distinguished panellists, ladies and gentlemen

Thanks to all of you, this Forum has been an extraordinary event. In more than 60 sessions over three days, we’ve heard from experts and practitioners approaching the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights from every angle: from tracking working conditions in supply chains to making the link with the Sustainable Development Goals to developing a binding treaty.

Since this year’s theme is tracking progress and ensuring coherence, I want to tell a story that illustrates the potential of these two concepts for the future of our field.

In 1987, the aluminium company Alcoa appointed a new CEO. At his first shareholders’ meeting, the new leader, Paul O’Neill, didn’t announce that he would restructure the company, or carry out layoffs, or sell off its most profitable units. He announced that from now on, Alcoa would become the safest company in the world to work for. Accidents, not profits, would be the focus of his efforts.

Almost immediately, O’Neill instituted a policy where all company executives had to attend the funeral of any worker killed on the job. In the first few weeks of his tenure, a worker was killed in Mexico, and O’Neill instructed his executives to fly away from whatever meetings they were attending, no matter where they were in the world, to come to rural Mexico and attend the funeral.

He told every executive, even the ones in charge of things like accounting and human resources, to visit the plant where the worker was killed. It was their job, he said, to find out what had gone wrong and to consider how they could prevent similar accidents in the future.

Suddenly, safety became the concern of everyone in the company. Vice presidents gave workers the mandate to fix any unsafe conditions they saw immediately, even if it meant skipping the formal request and budget approval processes. When a worker called O’Neill at home at 2 am to report a broken conveyor belt, O’Neill told the factory manager to be there to fix it by 5 am. Every accident at every plant was seen as a company-wide failure.

In O’Neill’s 13 years as CEO, Alcoa’s accident rate fell to near-zero. Managers found that many of the safety fixes reported by workers actually made the plants more efficient. Profits rose by 400 percent.

I want to be clear: I’m not telling this story to imply that everything a company does to respect human rights will boost profits. Some of them will, and some of them won’t. We should continue to stress the moral and legal duties of companies, as well as the business benefits when they exist.

What I think this story illustrates most, though, is the immense power of measurement, and the ability of companies, when they have the will, to relentlessly improve. Before O’Neill’s tenure, his managers saw accidents as an inevitable part of doing business. Before the early 1900s, companies said child labour in their supply chains was inevitable. Before the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, companies said paying bribes in developing countries was inevitable. And yet, when the incentives changed, either inside the companies or outside of them, the companies changed too...

And finally, I want to make one general consideration that all of us, no matter which pillar we’re working on, should keep in mind:

Effectively implementing the Guiding Principles means measuring and tracking where we’re making progress and where we’re falling behind. We need comprehensive data on how businesses are impacting human rights, as well as robust systems for tracking state and company approaches to address those impacts.

The CEO of Alcoa didn’t make his deputies care about health and safety by asking them to. He provided them with the numbers, rewarded them for improving performance and punished them for degrading it...

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20 November 2015

UN Forum speech: "The role of corporate reporting in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights"

Author: Richard Howitt MEP, European Parliament Rapporteur on Corporate Social Responsibility

richard howitt un forum 2015As a prime mover behind the European Union's Non-Financial Reporting Directive, I've been asked to comment on how this will impact upon corporate uptake of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In my contribution this morning I would also like to complement the work of the Global Reporting Initiative, who've organised this session, and highlight how their Government Advisory Group plays an important role in advancing the corporate sustainability agenda through public policy, and to say it is a pleasure to be part of it.

Now, the EU Directive. 

It explicitly puts human rights in to the 'G' of 'ESG'.

Recital 9 states that certain existing international frameworks can be used to comply, and specifically names the UN Guiding Principles.

By getting companies to analyse 'risk' and asking them to take action to 'prevent human rights abuses' [Recital 7] and by specifically including the key concept of 'due diligence' from the Guiding Principles [Art. 19a (1)(b)], there is no doubt that it will get companies to take human rights seriously.

To Europe's partners in other regions of the world represented here in the United Nations, who sometimes question Europe's good faith in relation to all this, passing a law and specifically including the Guiding Principles and the prevention of abuses, is a pretty good demonstration of Europe's good faith.

By the way, Recital 9 also includes the GRI, of course, and I know the GRI has produced its 'Making Headway in Europe' document showing how it can be a means to implementing the Directive's requirements. 

In truth, this approach does make the Directive a mixture of hard and soft law, but many of us argue that this will be good for uptake too - using the deliberate lack of prescription in the Directive to encourage companies to report in a more ambitious spirit, rather than in one of minimum legal compliance.

This is not the first time Europe has asked for non-financial data to be included in financial reporting, but it is the first time human rights have been specifically named.

It means that many companies who thought human rights were not 'material' to their business will now be prompted to rethink.

It will promote the Guiding Principles because - without legislating for it - it supports the principle of 'integration'.

So the Directive allows an exception for separate if synchronised reporting, but the main expectation is that the information will be in the management report of the company's annual financial accounts.

This means uptake of the Guiding Principles will be seen by business, not as an additional burden, but as a 'core' part of good corporate governance.

It is a pity that in relation to the very interesting corporate reporting requirement in the UK's Modern Slavery Act, the official guidance suggests that this will be separate from and additional to the requirements of the EU Directive.  I think that's a pity and that those of us from the Government sector must be careful to avoid duplicate requirements and to help business by maintaining the principle of integration.

I think we can say that slavery is clearly an issue of human rights.

Here in Geneva, we know that human rights are indivisible, so it is not unreasonable from a company point of view, to make corporate reporting of human rights indivisible too.

Next, the EU Directive will have an impact of uptake of the Guiding Principles not just in Europe but in the whole world, because many non-EU headquartered companies with subsidiaries in EU member states are expected to comply by including the information in the form of their group consolidated financial statement; and because the Directive asks EU businesses to apply the reporting requirement in relation to their global supply and sub-contracting chains, of course with a proportionality condition.

Will this be actually implemented?

Yes, it is happening now: European countries are currently transposing the Directive in to their national legislation. That has to be completed by next year, for the reporting to start with the business year 2017.

Denmark has been the first to do it and by doing so in their Financial Statements Act. They have gone beyond the minimum threshold in the Directive, applying it to all large companies, not just listed and public interest companies. That suggests the final figure EU-wide of companies undertaking this reporting may well go above the 6,000 projected. 

The Danish experience suggests that, despite or perhaps because of the 'comply or explain' element which is built in to the EU Directive too, there is and actually will be a high rate of compliance.

By the way, there will be guidance, but it is non-binding and my message to companies is: please don't wait.

So the final question I was asked to address is: do we need to incentivise it?

My answer is maybe not.  Clearly this is now part of company law and most companies already fully appreciate the importance of good corporate governance.

But perhaps what we as governments have to incentivise is collaborative exercises like the one we are involved in here, to understand the implications of the reporting, to make it more effective and to drive up standards.

We have to make sure this is not about 'a good report' but about 'good human rights'.

Then we really will have done something to implement the Guiding Principles.


Richard Howitt MEP is European Parliament Rapporteur on Corporate Social Responsibility 

E-mail: [email protected]

Website: www.richardhowittmep.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/richardhowittmep

Twitter: @richardhowitt


18 November 2015

Mike Brady intervention at the UN Business Forum side event on binding Treaty

Author: Mike Brady, Baby Milk Action (UK)

Baby Milk Action is the UK member of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), consisting of more than 270 groups in over 160 countries. We monitor the baby food companies against UN marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly. Specifically the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was really the first attempt to set standards for an industry sector at the international level, long before the Tobacco Convention...

If we are serious about protecting human rights, we have to put human rights before business interests. Business should be consulted, of course, but human rights should not be negotiated away. We need the measures that are necessary, not just those that will be tolerated by business...A big concern remains, however: what happens when regulations do not exist or are not enforced? So we would like to see some sort of complaint, investigation and enforcement mechanism at international level included in the Treaty.

Not just home nation responsibility for the actions of their corporations in other countries, but an international system for when national measures fail.
Home nations may be reluctant to put their corporations at a competitive disadvantage by taking more robust action than other countries, so there needs to be an international mechanism as well to create a level playing field...

When people say the UN Global Compact and OECD Guidelines make a binding Treaty unnecessary, we disagree.

We need a Treaty with strong mechanisms...One idea is to make it a legal requirement for Corporate Social Responsibility reports to be truthful, with a board member legally responsible for them, as happens with company accounts. There could be an international public prosecutor to take legal action at some form of international court if a preliminary investigation of complaints finds there is a case to answer. To change behaviour any sanctions have to be meaningful...I hope the Treaty process will look to imaginative ideas to protect human rights and will bring in measures that are necessary, not just those that will be tolerated by business.

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17 November 2015

Margaret Jungk opening remarks

Author: Margaret Jungk, UN Working Group on Human Rights

Good morning. On behalf of the UN Working Group on Human Rights and Business and the OHCHR Forum Secretariat, I’d like to warmly welcome you to the 4th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the largest and most diverse global gathering on business and human rights in the world. We have over 2,000 participants this year, a group ranging from community representatives to company CEOs, from investors interested in supporting responsible companies to government officials interested in regulating them.

But as we open this Forum and prepare to spend the next two days discussing where we are in our field and where we should be going, we should also acknowledge the people who can’t be here. Workers attempting to organize a union in the face of a company, or a country, that is determined not to let them. Farmers trying to access land after theirs has been seized by a foreign enterprise. People who don’t even know the term human rights defender, much less that they are one.

I want us to keep these people in mind because the theme of this year’s Forum — ‘tracking progress and ensuring coherence’ — was conceived to make us think at that level. We’re not here just to talk about laws and processes. Those things are important, but their ultimate aim is to improve the human rights practices of companies in reality, not just on paper, and not just in conference rooms...

Since tracking progress is part of our theme for the Forum, I’ll start by saying a few words about the progress we’ve made.

It’s been four years since our field came together to devise and adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Since then, the Guiding Principles have become the definitive standard for assigning responsibility to companies and States for addressing human rights abuses. The Guiding Principles have been integrated into international standards including the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, the IFC Performance Standards, ISO26000 and many more. They’re supported in declarations and resolutions by ASEAN, the African Union, the European Union, Council of Europe, and the Organization of American States...

These achievements are significant. That’s a lot of progress in just four years’ time.

But at the same time we celebrate this progress, we should also acknowledge that it represents only the first stages of implementing the Guiding Principles. Let me turn now to the challenges that lie ahead.

First, in recent years, we’ve seen a global crackdown on human rights defenders, especially those who are perceived as interfering with foreign investment or who push for the idea that such investment should be regulated to promote equitable development. ESCR-Net has documented a 30% increase in threats, harassment and detention of human rights defenders working on corporate human rights impacts this year alone. The UN Working Group has communicated directly with a number of companies and States on such cases.

Second, findings from OHCHR’s Accountability and Remedy Project point to increased uncertainty about when and how companies will be held liable for involvement in severe human rights abuses, particularly when companies contribute to abuses committed by other actors. Many of the places where these violations take place have the legal and institutional 4 frameworks to prevent them, but they’re not given the resources or the freedom to implement them...

All of these trends illustrate the same point, and the reason the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights structured this Forum around the theme of tracking progress and ensuring coherence: Achievements in commitments and conduct are not enough. If we want to succeed in the task for which we came here, we must also see progress in results.

It’s a monumental task. But looking back on the victories of the human rights movement in the last 100 years—workers’ rights, universal suffrage, the widening of rights protections for minority groups—they’ve been slow, they’ve been incremental and at times they’ve been messy. But they worked because, no matter how many missteps they made or challenges they faced, they always moved in the same direction: towards stronger rights protections, for more vulnerable groups, in more countries. That’s what we’re working toward as well...

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15 November 2015

Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus Statement to the 4th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

Author: Representatives of Indigenous Peoples from different world regions

“We, the Indigenous Peoples…demand that States protect, and that business respect, our rights to land, territory and water, the wind and other natural resources, fully guaranteeing our individual and collective rights as recognised in all the conventions, treaties and international norms on the rights of Indigenous Peoples…

[T]estimonies of Indigenous Peoples show, irreparable damage has been caused to Mother Earth and all living beings, such as murders, abuse, rape, the disappearance of rivers, destruction of the social fabric, hunger and poverty. That is why we would like to reiterate that…[the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights] should not justify businesses presence without the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous Peoples…

…In our review of National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights that have been developed to date and are being developed, it is a matter of great disappointment that human rights obligations of States, including to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, have not been given due regard, specifically, concerning Indigenous Peoples participation in the elaboration of NAPs.

The Indigenous Peoples recommend a legally-binding treaty applicable to all transnational, national and sub-national business enterprises. This treaty should cover all violations of human rights (not merely grave violations). Furthermore, the treaty drafting process should be inclusive and participatory for all States, civil society and Indigenous Peoples…

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