Speech by FRA Director on International Human Rights Day 2013

Speech by FRA Director Morten Kjaerum to event on human rights and business to mark International Human Rights Day, Haus der EU, Vienna, 10 December 2013.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I join my colleagues in welcoming you here on Human Rights Day. Human Rights Day is particularly special this year given the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, and now the sad, but expected passing away a few days ago of someone who embodied much of what we strive to achieve, Nelson Mandela.

Those of us of a certain generation, and I count myself among them, who have been involved in human rights and anti-racism have personally drawn inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life and work.  Diversity, inclusion and universal human rights while respecting difference are the things that we can take from his legacy, and build into many of the policies that inform fundamental rights.

One such area is the topic of our Human Rights Day – Human Rights and Business. Diversity, inclusion and, under the various international frameworks, respect for human rights in its many forms is now very much part of a modern business model.

Though I must add that individual rights and trade and market place activity have been with us since the dawn of mankind! And in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt called on “all organs of society” to play their role in making the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality – including in the “factory” and on the “farm”: in all the “small places”.

Globalisation and its impact

International human rights standards have traditionally been the responsibility of governments, aimed at regulating relations between the State and individuals and groups. But with the increased role of corporate actors, nationally and internationally, the issue of business’ potential to impact positively or negatively on the enjoyment of human rights is now widely recognised.

In the era of globalisation, the reach and presence of international business operations has become more local.  The development of transnational supply chains and the global market economy mean that responsibility for business operations has become more shared across different national jurisdictions.  For business to operate in various national jurisdictions an overarching framework was required. Human rights impacts of business in one jurisdiction inevitably lead to knock on impacts in other jurisdictions. Greater clarity and coherence on how to manage responsibility over these impacts was needed both by business and government.

Work of the UN and link to Human Rights Day

Here we have to thank the UN for its unstinting work and it is right that we acknowledge this on UN Human Rights Day. Over the past decade, the UN through its human rights mechanisms examined the scope of business’ human rights responsibilities and explored ways for corporate actors to be accountable for the impact of their activities on human rights. This has resulted in greater clarity.  

The emerging understanding and consensus have come as a result of the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework on human rights and business, which was elaborated by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie. This is what we now call the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights.

If we add to this the work on the Global Compact, the UN has played a pivotal role in consolidating standards, drawing business into the human rights ambit and bringing greater clarity to the area. 

Of course there are other standards from the ILO, the OECD and ISO, but the work of the UN still remains pivotal, partly for its scope and its specific link to human rights.

UN Framework mutually reinforcing with Charter of Fundamental Rights

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights do more than define what governments and enterprises should do to avoid and address adverse impacts on human rights by enterprises, they draw business into that rights centred approach to policy which is at the heart of human rights work. 

Many companies have long realised that their most important asset is their people, while others have long adopted the triple bottom line of Profit, People and Planet. This shift has been gradual, but is changing the way business conducts itself globally. And this has been positive for human rights and is changing the relationship between the human rights community and business. At least there is a common framework for dialogue now.

In the Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights complements the UN Guiding Principles and can function side by side.  Taken together they provide a framework to advance policy and guidance in the European Union.  The European Union’s Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy in 2011 and the list of follow up actions demonstrate that.

The topic is certainly gaining a certain momentum in EU policy and action.  The direction now is very much to engage with business on human rights and look for ways to counter potential or real adverse impacts on human rights of business operations. As examples the Union published an Introductory Guide to Human Rights for SMEs and human rights guidance for enterprises in three business sectors, namely employment and recruitment; information and communication technology; and oil and gas.

The individual guidance on human rights in the three sectors share a common thread. These centre around ways to integrate the UN Guiding Principles into business systems, culture and operations. Looking at ways to track performance and develop smart indicators. Communicating performance both for dealing with external impact and building an internal culture of support for human rights. Finally and the most difficult areas are around remedial action and how to deal with grievances.

The approach in developing those guides was very much a cooperative approach with the business community and a host of stakeholders representing various interest groups. The guides would not have been possible without the work of the UN or the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In addition, the Union performs an annual fundamental rights check on the compliance of its policy and action with the Charter.  This check can be more comprehensive in its reach and I look forward to working with the Commission to support that process.

I believe that in the European Union, at least, in the responsible business community, we have now moved on from the days when governments and business regarded human rights as a regulatory obstacle for business operations. There can be no place or justification in European business operations for discriminatory treatment, child labour, slave like working conditions of trafficked persons, life threatening poor health and safety conditions or conditions that undermine human dignity.

This applies whether it is a SME or one of the giants of the global markets. We have some of the tools in place to advise and monitor compliance with human rights now and hopefully we are creating the conditions to develop trust and partnership with the business community.

Internal/external cohesion to EU Human Rights Policy

This brings me to another aspect of EU work. Human Rights and business play a role in ensuring the internal and external consistency and coherence to EU human rights policy. Inevitably there is a major focus on the operations of the great European multinationals with their transnational sourcing of raw materials, their outsourcing of elements of their business processes and their operations in multiple national locations.

This is quite right but we need to ensure that the business operations that take place in our own backyard are fit for human rights purpose. Human rights violations in the European agricultural sector, people trafficked into Europe to work in the grey and black economies and EU citizens working in modern slave like conditions can become invisible to policy makers. Yes, we have to deal with the horrific tragedies such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, but we need to ensure that we have our own house in order.  We also need to ensure that non-European multinationals that work within the EU meet our Charter standards as well. As Europe’s share of the global GDP diminishes we can anticipate more third country firms investing and conducting part of their operations in Europe.  It is important that this is undertaken within a responsible business framework.

The Agency is undertaking a project on severe forms of labour exploitation.  The project looks at criminal exploitation of the work of EU and non-EU migrants. It aims to collect information on the nature of and responses to severe forms of labour exploitation across the EU. It builds on previous FRA research, particularly concerning irregular migrants in domestic work, and is linked to current work on victims’ rights and support.

The project deals with a topic that has not been extensively researched to date at EU level. Labour exploitation largely remains undetected and unreported because of its illegal nature and the vulnerabilities of its victims. Labour exploitation is high on the EU agenda. It is particularly linked to the EU strategy for eradicating human trafficking, as well as legislation such as the Employers’ Sanctions Directive, the Trafficking Directive, the EU Victims’ Directive, the Seasonal Workers' Directive and on-going revision of the Directive on Posted Workers.

Stakeholders at EU, national and local level will use the evidence collected by the project such as the existence and implementation of legislation and policies. One example includes the obligation of Member States under the Employers’ Sanctions Directive to criminalise labour conducted under particularly exploitative working conditions. Groups that work on the ground dealing with these issues, such as labour inspectorates, trade unions and victim support organisations, may also learn from the promising practices of others that will be collected by the project.

Next Steps

There is much that we have achieved in the Union, but our ambition should be to lead globally. To do this we need to integrate fully the corporate social responsibility action agenda with the human rights guiding principles as the next step. This would bring us fully in line with the demands that national governments have placed upon themselves.

National Action Plans or policies on CSR should have human rights as one of the key pillars and drivers.  This would be fully in line with the triple bottom line approach. These Plans and policies should be joined up with for example the National Integration Strategies on the Roma and other initiatives and funding streams to support wider participation in the labour market and economy.  As I have said it is key for our internal and external coherence that action we propose outside the Union to third countries is fully consistent with our actions to tackle human rights issues within the Union.

Areas where the Union can work closely with business is in designing mechanisms to monitor compliance within businesses taking fully into account the size and areas of operation of the business. Improving company disclosure of social and environmental impact with an emphasis on human rights impact. Supporting the education, training and development of capacity within business to understand and take action against adverse impacts.

The Europe 2020 growth strategy sets out to generate smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Responsible business conduct and respect for fundamental rights underpin many of the targets and the overall ambition. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) within a human rights and business framework is a necessary and natural counterpart to the drive for a more competitive Europe. Responsible business behaviour is crucial for building trust towards the market economy, trade openness and globalisation. And as we gradually move to a more knowledge based economy – how we treat the key asset – the human being – will determine whether we stay globally competitive or not.

Thank you for your attention.