High Level Seminar on Human Rights and Enterprise - “Promoting the effective implementation of universal and regional instruments ", organised by the Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH)

Strasbourg , 

As delivered

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you here today for the opening of this Seminar on human rights and business.

I am particularly encouraged by the range and expertise of distinguished speakers who have come to this event.

Among our number we have representatives of international organisations, member state governments, academics, think tanks, and trade unions.

This is a snapshot of the interests and organisations required to ensure that business upholds human rights standards in the twenty first century – along with business representatives themselves who, we trust, will also engage and the Platform that we are setting up with major internet providers goes in this direction.

Twenty first century business is of course very different from its previous incarnations.

Of course, the bottom line remains.

Commercial enterprises exist to make money for their owners and shareholders, while also generating jobs, increasing innovation and raising revenues for spending on the public good.

But the standards that we expect of businesses – how they treat their employees, customers and the world in which they make their money – this really has changed.

Throughout history many innocent people have suffered at the hands of industry:

Child labour and slave labour; poor working conditions and the exploitation of workers; and industrial pollution – often on an industrial scale.

We have come a long way in addressing these practices throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: particularly in developed countries like Council of Europe member states.

Higher standards have been demanded by citizens and employees, interest groups and trade unions.

In the post Second World War era, this took on a new dimension with workers’ rights forged for the first time in the context of human rights provisions.

And many businesses have bought into that ethos too, with the growth of corporate social responsibility.

These standards have been enforced by domestic and international law.

But the situation is not picture perfect.

At the Council of Europe, we are very aware that among our member states there are still instances where workers are exploited, poverty is entrenched and social and economic rights are set aside by ambivalent employers –

Employers who see human rights as something for governments but not for them.

But it is never just to place profit and short term growth above human dignity, development and sustainable growth.

It is never just – nor is it legal – to set aside our human rights.

Respect for human rights, including social rights, is not only an ethical imperative and a legal obligation: it is also an economic necessity.

Once we realise that short term growth or growth that benefits only a few is not real growth, but a recipe for discontent, insecurity and social unrest, we understand that business and human rights are not antagonistic notions.

They are complementary elements of peace and prosperity.

Ladies and gentlemen, states have a responsibility in this field.

When they become parties to human rights treaties, they are bound to protect those whose rights are guaranteed against abuses:

Not only against abuses committed by state agents, but also by third parties – including business.

This is what the UN Guiding principles are about: facilitating the implementation of a fundamental duty of states.

Their approach – to Protect, Respect and Remedy – is the right one.

At the Council of Europe, we have recognised our capacity to supplement and implement those Principles –

To adapt them to the sectors and circumstances that exist among our member states.

Our Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2016) 3 does exactly that and we can be proud of its added value.

The Recommendation highlights the specific needs of children, indigenous people, human rights defenders and other workers.

And it goes further in two unique ways.

First, it outlines measures to ensure that businesses domiciled in our member states do not undermine human rights in their dealings outside Europe.

Second, it builds on our Organisation’s judicial expertise, gained through the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee on Social Rights and other specialised bodies, placing special emphasis on the necessity to improve access to remedies in our member states.

It also urges member states to review national legislation to ensure compliance, aided by National Action Plans to help those who want and need bespoke support.

But the mere existence of his Recommendation is insufficient for success.

Collaboration will be key.

Our Recommendation provides a process of information sharing among member states that the Council of Europe will facilitate.

And we will engage with relevant stakeholders to make this work.

At the member state level our Committee of Ministers will ensure executive interaction, our Parliamentary Assembly will bring together legislators from across the political spectrum and our Congress will help sub-national levels of government to adapt too.

Meanwhile our Conference of international non-governmental organisations will involve civil society and we will work with trade unions on the one hand, and businesses on the other, in our standard-setting work.

We are also determined to co-operate with other International Organisations, including with the European Union.

The initiative of the Social Rights Pillar of the European Union, launched by President Juncker, is one that we fully support, in which our Organisation should be fully involved and that should be firmly based on the European Social Charter.

We expect that Pillar to provide a solid framework for the implementation of the UN’s Guiding Principles, including in respect of the National Action Plans for Business and Human Rights – and we will seek to closely co-operate with the European Union in order to improve these action plans in such a way as to address potential violations of human rights, including social rights, in the most efficient way.

Every one of us stands to gain from enhancing our human rights protections – and we are determined to work with all relevant parties so that we are all invested in this joint endeavour.

But of course what matters is what we deliver.

The Recommendation foresees a review of progress five years after its adoption.

Will Europe be spearheading improvement in businesses upholding human rights?

Will we have worked together to share the information, experience and best practice that will drive up standards for the benefit of our citizens?

Will we have ensured access to remedies for the wronged and the removal of judicial barriers?

These are the standards by which we will be judged.

Today, at this seminar, we will hear your thoughts about how both the UN’s Guiding Principles and the Council of Europe’s Recommendation (2016) 3 can make the difference needed –

About whether they go far enough, whether there is scope to go further still, and what more can be done to share information, foster co-operation, and co-ordinate our efforts to achieve our common goal.

After all, human rights are universal.

They must be protected for every citizen and in every aspect of their lives.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.