Human Rights Drives Rather than Threatens Business, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Atlanta Conference, Calling for Due Diligence, Responsible Investment

Following is the text of Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohamed’s video message to the Thirteenth Atlanta Business and Human Rights Conference, convened by the International Organization of Employers, the United States Council for International Business and the Coca-Cola Company, today:

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to address this important Forum.

Today, we are all navigating unfamiliar waters.  The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty, rising inequalities, disinformation, and the deepening digital divide, are just some of the issues forcing us to face complex dilemmas.  More than ever, responsible leadership and commitment to international standards are critical.  We will not build back a better, more sustainable, and more inclusive world if we do not follow a human rights-based approach which helps to ensure we leave no one behind in the recovery.  In this profound and historic endeavour, the role of business is critical.

All businesses have a baseline responsibility to do no harm.  This requires carrying out human rights’ due diligence — to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for potential and existing harms.  Due diligence is essential for responsible and sustainable business leadership.  And for this, we have a compass:  the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

This June, the Guiding Principles turned 10 years old.  Since their launch in 2011, businesses and employers have come to recognize the importance of due diligence in their operations and across supply chains.  Many are working to tackle discrimination, as demonstrated by the Equal Pay International Coalition.  More and more companies are joining forces to share good practices and to combat forced labour and child labour.

However, businesses cannot lead this transformation without the support of investors.  Investors are the second pillar of this mission.  We are now seeing investors asking what CEOs are doing to protect their broader ecosystem of employees, customers and suppliers.  Investors serve as a rudder to responsible business.

This endeavour would be equally impossible without the support and guidance of trade unions, human rights defenders, civil society and national human rights institutions.  This third pillar is conducting crucial work in promoting responsible business conduct.

The fourth and vital stakeholder is Governments.  Governments in several countries have developed national action plans on business and human rights.  A number of Governments have also adopted corporate human rights due diligence requirements.  It is encouraging to see human rights due diligence formalized by law.  At the United Nations, an intergovernmental working group is developing a legally binding instrument that would hold transnational corporations with poor human rights records to account.  I welcome the constructive engagement of businesses in this important process.

However, despite positive efforts and progress across all stakeholder groups, much more remains to be done.  Many more Governments and companies need to step up.  What is needed now is to translate awareness, good intentions and commitment into practice.

The lessons from the COVID-19 crisis can lead to more inclusive and resilient societies and deliver on the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if we choose to learn from them.  Business leaders must champion the Sustainable Development Goals, to promote sustainable financing and technology transfer for development, to invest in green and blue economies, and, more broadly, to promote and engender peaceful societies.

COVID-19 will have long-lasting impacts.  We have learnt that cooperation across borders and between sectors is key to weathering deep-seated challenges.  Coordinating our efforts, aligning to principles that uplift all, and working together to devise solutions that will deliver a better future is the only way to build greater resilience.

I would like to leave you with one thought:  while the harm resulting from irresponsible business practices can be serious and irreversible, it is most often preventable.  Human rights are not a threat but a driver of business.  We must embrace them as a solution — for stronger and more responsible leadership, healthier companies, better treated employees, more satisfied customers and a better future for humanity.  I wish you fruitful discussions over the coming two days.

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