Remarks by UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Crisis Bureau Asako Okai at the 2019 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

November 28, 2019

Statement by Asako Okai at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights - 'Time to act: Governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights'

Madame High Commissioner, distinguished fellow panelists, representatives of member states, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great privilege to be here representing the United Nations Development Programme on this important topic.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and human rights are interwoven and inextricably tied together. Private sector engagement is key to reaching the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda. This role must go far beyond its traditional contributions to development such as jobs, and taxes. Clearly, we are unlikely to make progress unless businesses act responsibly towards people and the planet.

Sustainable development is put in reverse when human rights abuses—including forced labor, sexual harassment, land grabs, and environmental degradation—go unaddressed.

When businesses decide to drive human rights considerations through their operations, they can empower women, enhance child health and well-being, ensure decent work, and strengthen the foundations for sustaining peace. This is why the UN Guiding Principles have been expressly recognized in the 2030 Agenda as a means of implementation of the SDGs.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) provide us with a principled and practical means by which the private sector can address human rights risks and impacts, in furtherance of the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

Asako Okai giving remarks at the 2019 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva


UNDP's work

This year UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights submitted to the General Assembly a report on policy coherence in government action. To ensure concerted action and policy coherence, a national action plan on business and human rights will be a platform to ensure coordination between government functions. These national action plans are a necessary step to create an agreed agenda at the national, provincial and community levels.

We understand that 22 national action plans have already been adopted and twenty-three more states have committed to developing one. In the last 3 years, UNDP has been engaged in supporting 6 such processes through our Business and Human Rights in Asia initiative. 

Allow me here to congratulate the Royal Thai Government for being the first country in Asia to adopt a national action plan on business and human rights. Our partnership with the Government has provided deep learning opportunities for UNDP and we are now sharing our lessons learned with other countries in the region.  I would like to share five Lessons Learned with you today: 

  1. Establish the facts: Human rights risks and frequencies vary in different parts of a country. In order to build a national plan, countries must conduct detailed baseline assessments, including at the local level, to fully understand the situation on the ground and to plan responses.
  2. Empower national human rights institutions: National Human Rights Institutions are an essential player in accountability systems and upholding business commitments to human rights. In many cases, NHRIs have actually been the prime movers in National Action Plans as well as in shoring up protections of human rights defenders. They are also the custodians of data and records on human rights issues related to business operations (as we have seen through the excellent work of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh.)
  3. Participation works: Multi-stakeholder consultation processes result in better quality plans which are more credible to the public. Plans which invite wider participation engender more buy-in from stakeholders, as we are seeing in Indonesia.
  4. Recognize business leaders as champions of change: Business leaders can advocate for strong national action plans – they can demand changes in government policy which reflect their own internal human rights standards - as we saw in Thailand where a large food export firm advocated strongly for government action on Business and Human Rights.
  5. Be prepared for politics: National action plan processes are inherently political. Sometimes the plans are hotly contested. Commitment from the highest levels of government is thus required for follow-through and to ensure coherent approaches across ministries and departments. It is important for us to recognize that national action plan processes are not a sprint, but a marathon.

To sum up, in this regard, we wish to express gratitude to the Government of Sweden for having accompanied UNDP during the last 2 years and supporting our work on the business and human rights, rule of law, resilience, and prevention. In particular, it has been excellent to have dedicated support to this work in South and Southeast Asia. I will also have the pleasure to announce later in this session a new and complementary partnership with the European Union.    

With the strong support of these partners, we look forward to continued engagement with the efforts of ILO, UNICEF, OECD, OHCHR, UNEP, IOM, and UN WOMEN. Working cohesively on the ground across agencies and civil societies in partnership with governments and business concerned will be critical in making a difference.

Lastly, I would like to recognize the importance of our partnership with the UN Working Group, which has been instrumental in guiding us as we develop regional initiatives. On behalf of the Working Group and UNDP, I would like to invite you to attend the South Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights which will take place in Kathmandu in 2020.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today.


Watch the remarks here