Remarks by Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, at the UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights

March 14, 2019

If businesses drive respect for human rights across their operations and value chains, they can induce positive changes in the lives of millions of people that are also directly linked to the 17 SDGs. ©UNDP India

As prepared for delivery.

It is a great privilege to be able to share the United Nations’ perspective on the Business and Human Rights agenda with this esteemed group of participants from government, business, the UN System, National Human Rights Institutions and civil society.

With the universal adoption of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community provided the guidance and means to measure progress towards address some of today’s most pressing global challenges - including poverty, inequality, and climate change.

Given that the South Asia region accounts for one quarter of world’s population and is home to highest number of poor and chronologically hungry people, global progress on the SDGs depend to a large extent on their achievements made in South Asia.

The 2030 Agenda also provides governments, civil society actors, development practitioners and the private sector an opportunity to work together towards common aims.

We can each play a valuable part through leveraging our distinct roles, responsibilities and capacities.

The Crucial Role of the Private Sector in Development

UNDP, and the UN System as a whole, is working more closely with the private sector than ever before as it plays a crucial, and often under-played role in development.

We are working hard to build new coalitions, seek out new kinds of financing and bring in a new level of sophistication to our offer as a global development partner.

We are looking to companies, investors, start-ups, and populations including youth to help us build networks, help countries enhance capacity and leverage new technologies and platforms in order to try and solve our planet’s toughest challenges.

The United Nations keenly recognizes that the private sector accelerates sustainable development through its considerable expertise, resources, and production methods.

The private sector develops life-saving medicines, creates meaningful jobs, and helps ensure that the nutritional needs of so many are met.

However, we also recognize that some firms may attempt to take shortcuts, break regulations, or put society’s interests aside in the competitive pursuit of profitability. These firms are acting against our common interests.

When businesses do not respect human rights in their operations, they reverse sustainable development gains.

On the other hand, when businesses advance human rights considerations throughout their operations, businesses move the needle on inequality, decent work, and environmental stewardship.

When global supply chains are mobilized to end trafficking, child labour, and discrimination in hiring and promotion, they ensure that no one is left behind.

The Private Sector and the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a transformative framework to bring together various stakeholders to end poverty and hunger, reduce inequalities and build a sustainable world.

If businesses drive respect for human rights across their operations and value chains, they can induce positive changes in the lives of millions of people that are also directly linked to the 17 SDGs.

Some businesses around the work are even incorporating the SDGs into their business plans. For example, one Swedish company created a programme for internal engagement to encourage their employees to be engaged in the SDGs and commit to be active around one specific SDG in order to make a difference.

When businesses take this approach, the importance of the goals is expressed, and awareness will turn into impact that can make a positive difference. That could be an example for business in the region and indeed around the world to gain inspiration from.

Governments have taken initiatives to measure progress such as the SDG India Index launched by Niti Aayog and the Accord and Alliance for safety in Bangladesh.

What is clear is that the UN needs to engage the private sector in even greater measure to ensure that we achieve the SDGs in this region, and globally.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provides a very clear direction and a framework with which to achieve the SDGs.

The Guiding Principles provided the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. They continue to provide the internationally accepted framework for enhancing standards and practice regarding business and human rights.

Like the SDGs, the Guiding Principles provide an easy-to-follow blueprint for governments and businesses to follow.  The “protect, respect and remedy” framework, at the heart of the Guiding Principles, is in fact recognized as a means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

We call on these firms not merely to engage with the Guiding Principles, but to lead their respective industries and encourage sector-wide transformation.

We ask them to serve as an example to their peers.

We ask corporate boards to look beyond “Corporate Social Responsibility-as-usual” and align management incentives, lobbying efforts, and research budgets, towards ending abuses in business operations and achieving sustainable development.

We must recognise that the private sector does in fact do great work on Corporate Social Responsibility. However, this work cannot replace the private sector’s’ obligation to respect human rights under the Guiding Principles as they are they are the most authoritative global framework on sustainable business conduct.

I am grateful that many companies are eager to take-up the principles, making constructive changes and creating positive impact for both their own business and wider society; including some companies that are represented here today in this room.

In South Asia and indeed across the entire world, the embrace of the Guiding Principles is now gaining encouraging momentum. More and more states are embarking on the adoption of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights as part of the State responsibility to disseminate and implement the Guiding Principles.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Government of India for the launching of the Zero Draft of their National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

UNDP is proud to be supporting Thailand, which will be the first country in Asia to finalize a National Action Plan.

Indonesia that has just embarked in a similar process with technical assistance from our Bangkok and Jakarta Offices.  [I understand the government of Malaysia, which is represented today by the Minister of Laws, is here to consider the same. We are grateful for your attendance, your excellency.]

I encourage representatives of all countries present today to follow the example set by countries like India, Thailand and Indonesia and embrace the Business and Human Rights Agenda as a means towards sustainable development. We are here to assist as necessary to ensure the strongest outcomes, led by the specific requirements and nuances in each country.

In this regard, UNDP is lending its expertise to advance the implementation of the Guiding Principles by designing policy tools and frameworks, including supporting the formulation and implementation of National Action Plans and facilitating participatory decision-making processes.

We are working in close cooperation with other UN actors and we are privileged to be working in partnership with the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the custodian of the Guiding Principles.

We are also working with States to enable and promote corporate human rights due diligence, pushing policy coherence, and supporting efforts to strengthen the capacity of National Human Rights Institutions to fulfil their important oversight role.

UNDP is also providing technical assistance to businesses in their efforts to conduct human rights impact assessments, amongst a range of other related initiatives.


In closing, I would like to express my gratitude for that to Prof Surya Deva, the Chairperson of the Working Group present here today as co-organizer of this event.

I would also like to acknowledge the presence of representatives of ILO, IOM, UN Women, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNICEF who are working in the field alongside UNDP experts to work on the implementation of the Business and Human Rights Agenda in seven countries in Asia.

We recently celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the UN’s development arm, UNDP holds fast to the promise of the Universal Declaration, the UN Charter, and other foundational documents on human rights, including the eight ILO fundamental conventions.

We remain mindful that business respect for all human rights is the fundamental basis upon which our engagement with the private sector takes place.

In tandem with this understanding, The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the world’s most authoritative global framework on sustainable business conduct.

We are also united in our understanding that we must rapidly and effectively join forces to fully address gender inequality, entrenched poverty, forced labour practices, displacement, pollution, and climate change.

Sustainable development is a global challenge but it is a great positive that reports strongly indicate that the South Asia region has made substantive progress on achieving a number of SDGs.

What is true is that we will need a bold, cooperative and dynamic approach that involves in equal parts - the private sector, civil society, and governments.

Today, the 150 participants here today are sending a very important and powerful message that a joint agenda has been agreed. Collective, bold action on business and human rights is not only the right way forward – it is the only way forward.