The Future of Business and Human Rights for People, Planet and Peace

Statement delivered by Asako Okai at the UNDP Annual Rule of Law high level event segment: Responsible Business and the Decade of Action

Posted On June 30, 2020

Distinguished fellow panelists, representatives of member states, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

Allow me to begin by thanking our keynote speaker, Professor Anita Ramasastry, for her inspiring analysis of the past, present and future of business and human rights. I would also like to thank our discussants, Ms. Sekhar and Dr. Macassar, for their reflections on the need to make the Business and Human Rights agenda a common one, for Governments, Businesses and Civil Society.

The importance of responsible business practices has been heightened by the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent estimates are that, up to 100 million people could be pushed globally into extreme poverty, and that 195 million people could lose their jobs.

While some businesses have acted responsibly, ensuring that their workers’ salaries are paid and labour rights respected, others have resorted to cost-cutting, de-prioritizing respect for human rights standards in trying to protect their bottom line.

Even more disconcertingly, the COVID-19 crisis may yet prove to be a dress rehearsal for the risks and negative impacts that may be wrought by climate-induced disasters that are on the horizon.

History has shown that a crisis can profoundly shift thinking about how economies are governed. If policy makers and investors, activists and entrepeneurs across the globe join forces to stop the reversal and push forward, we have reason for hope.

To counter the pandemic and its attendant effects, UNDP mobilized its efforts to help ‘Building Back Better’, with its Integrated COVID-19 Response Offer: Beyond recovery towards 2030.

Our network of 170 Country Offices will serve UNDP’s role as UN technical lead in the Social Ecocnomic Recovery effort with 4 areas in focus: governance, social protection, green economy, and digital disruption. Progress on each of these work streams will rely heavily on a proactive role to be played by business actors.

Now more than ever, forward-looking investors and companies recognise that business cannot sit idly on the sidelines as governments and civil society alone grapple with how to assist vulnerable people in times of the crisis.

Many corporations have already risen to the occasion, preparing hotels for medical use, switching manufacturing to masks and other PPE, and donating to public responses. However, businesses are called to move beyond corporate social responsibility to ensure human rights are respected in their labour force, avoid negative impact on the rights of their consumers, and in the communities where they operate.  

This message has consistently been conveyed by the UN since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda that recognized the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as one of its means of implementation; indeed, it has been reiterated when we embarked on the SDG Decade of Action.

The launch of the Global Initiative

UNDP has been supporting Responsible Business practices since 2016 when we started a regional program on Business and Human rights in Asia. I am very pleased to announce today a scaling up of our operations in this sector with the launch of a Global Initiative on Business and Human Rights, as an integral part of our Rule of Law and Human Rights program.

The Global Initiative on Business and Human Rights will build on the expertise, partnerships, and methodologies generated through our work in Asia and be informed by extensive baseline research work already conducted in other regions.  Operationalized in incremental phases over the next 18 months, our support to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is designed to impact on four major fronts:

•First, it will support governments in developing and implementing National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights. UNDP has been engaged in supporting 6 such processes in Asia, and it will broaden these efforts to Member States in all of our other regions: Africa, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Arab States.

 •Second, UNDP will aim to strengthen access to justice and access to adequate remedies for victims of business-related human rights abuses. In doing so, UNDP will build on its existing support to National Human Rights Institutions under the Tri-Partite Partnership, while deepening its engagement with civil society groups, judiciaries and bar associations.

•Third, UNDP will provide advice to corporations on how to assess and address human rights risks in their supply chains. This is particularly pressing in light of the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had on workers, communities and vulnerable groups; it is for this reason that UNDP has already developed a tool, called the Human Rights Due Diligence Rapid Self-Assessment for Companies, which helps businesses manage the human rights impacts of their operations during and after the pandemic. This is translated into 9 languages.

•Fourth, UNDP will continue to provide opportunities for peer-learning for government officials, businesses, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society groups and others. The latest such opportunity was at the Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum for Asia Pacific, organised, online, earlier in June by UNDP. These forums have proved to be invaluable, in exchanging key information, in allowing groups to learn from each other and to strategise together on tackling abuses by businesses, particularly as they are frequently transnational in character.

Other partnerships and the Global Initiative

In implementing the Global Initiative, UNDP will deepen its existing partnerships with key actors in the business and human rights sphere. Foremost among these, is the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. We have had a very successful partnership to date for which I would like to thank Anita and the other Working Group members; our collaboration will expand in the coming 12 months.

In the context of the project on the next decade of implementation of the UNGPs to which Prof Ramasastry made reference in her keynote speech, we will jointly host regional consultations, which will guide the development of the Roadmap on Business and Human Rights.

UNDP’s network, which counts five regional offices and 170 country offices, will be used to ensure all relevant stakeholders, including representatives of vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as indigenous peoples and migrant workers, are consulted globally on the way forward for the next 10 years.

UNDP is embarking on this global initiative counting on strong partnerships with other notable partners, including OHCHR, ILO, UNWOMEN and UNICEF, and OECD.  Concerted action and policy coherence in the field of responsible business and human rights will be a common objective.


I would also like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to the Government of Sweden, the European Union and the Federal Republic of Germany for their support to our business and human rights work so far, particularly in Asia.

We hope to be able to expand these partnerships worldwide, convene and support this growing community of like-minded actors, that are convinced that more sustainable business trajectories are possible. I hope you’ll share our enthusiasm for the opportunity to turn this moment of great reversal of human development into an historic leap forward, with the Sustainable Development Goals as our compass.

Thank you for your attention.