Business and Human Rights Peer Learning Meeting: toespraak minister Reynders

Introductory Remarks by Didier REYNDERS
Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs

On the occasion of the Business & Human Rights Peer Learning Meeting

Brussels, 23 May 2019


Dear experts,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to make these introductory remarks at the start of this peer learning exercise on ‘business and human rights’, which we’re organizing with the valuable support of our partners of the EEAS, the European Commission, Finland and the Belgian Federal Institute for Sustainable Development.

In the past 70 years, humanity has objectively made enormous progress. Many countries and societies enjoy peace and stability, an ever growing number of people is benefitting from fundamental rights and freedoms, humans have never in history been more healthy, prosperous and educated than today.

And yet the sense of challenge and uncertainty is also very real. Our societies are ongoing rapid change. Fears about globalization and the future are spawning inward-looking reactions. Multilateralism is clearly under challenge at the moment.

In this context, the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights a few years ago was a major advance. It is a wonderful example of how, through our instruments of international cooperation, we can define together important universal standards. It is also a milestone toward a better organization of our globalized world.

The principles embody a true paradigm shift. They are the recognition that the realization and respect of fundamental rights in a globalized world is a shared responsibility across borders, belonging to all actors, not only states.

The good news is that meetings like today show how far we have come in making this shift. We are well beyond the debate about whether this must happen. Now it is about how to make it a reality in the most efficient way.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Belgium adopted its National Action Plan in 2017, after a long process of broad internal consultation and concertation. I draw several lessons from this exercise.

First, the implementation of the Guiding Principles is a process. There will never be a “before and after moment”. We must build change bit by bit and learn along the way. This means it is important to accept to move forward, even with tools that are admittedly still imperfect. So it is with National Action Plans. They could of course always be better. But at one point it is important to make a decision, make the first step – in full knowledge that it is only the first step and that we need to keep moving further afterward.

Second, dialogue and a positive approach are essential. To truly integrate human rights and the Guiding Principles into business culture, we need to develop incentives, to push everybody in the right direction. Sanctions must of course belong to the array of tools against the worst offenders. But a punitive approach will never bring about the kind of deep change in mentalities that we seek.

Third, we also need to be aware of the difficulties that our companies are facing, of the environment in which they are operating. This is not just a matter of being fair to them. It is also an issue of efficiency. By imposing standards that businesses cannot meet, while at the same time their competitors do not follow suit, we will only manage to marginalize those who were most progressive, and fail to meet the overall objective. To bring about true and lasting change, we must speak the language of businesses, make them take the initiative, create virtuous circles in which they emulate each other and in which implementing the Principles becomes a competitive advantage, rather than a burden.

In this regard, I am convinced that sectoral approaches are essential. Circumstances are very different from one company to another. Blanket solutions will not work. Even if the principles are the same for all, their concrete implementation must be adapted to these specific circumstances to make a real impact. It is in this spirit that Belgium has launched a specific initiative in the cacao sector, and that we are taking initial steps for something similar concerning palm oil. Both of them are related to child labor and deforestation issues. These are areas where Belgium plays a sufficiently significant role, even as a small country, to hope to have a concrete impact on global standards.

As I said, dialogue is important, and an evaluation exercise can only be complete if all stakeholders are involved. That’s why I am particularly pleased to see that today’s peer learning meeting includes an interaction with stakeholders. I am also happy to announce that parallel to this morning’s session, the Belgian Federal Institute for Sustainable Development is organizing a stakeholder consultation on our National Action Plan. We value our regular contacts with academia and civil society in this regard.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will hear today more about what we have tried to do in our National Action Plan. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. It is important in this area to have a comprehensive approach across all the instruments at our disposal.

At national level, we are making the Principles an integral part of the criteria in the use of our export financing tools.

The debate has started on a future law on due diligence. I am convinced that this will come a reality sooner than later, if we can ensure that we approach this with a European dimension and can ensure a level-playing field for all businesses.

At European level, we need to put the principles at the heart of trade policy. We of course already have human rights “safety clauses” in the trade agreements of the EU. But we can go further. A non-paper from the Benelux countries is now proposing to flip the logic. In future agreements, we could incite positively our partners, by making a parallel between their degree of access to our markets and their degree of engagement on human rights in economic relations.

We also need to keep working at the global level, in Geneva. The discussion there is now centered on the proposal for a so-called “binding treaty”. We have strong issues with this text as it currently stands. It simply does not correspond to the kind of positive approach we favor. Yet I am convinced that we should not avoid, and that we should rather embrace, the debate. Failing to engage only gives the impression that we are afraid of moving forward. We must instead have the courage and the energy to propose an alternative vision. Because far from being afraid, European countries are at the forefront of implementing the Principles.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude,

Business & Human Rights remains at the core of Belgium’s human rights policy. The ultimate goal remains to make prosperity and development go hand in hand with human rights and fundamental freedoms. When conducting our discussions today, let us all keep former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s words in mind when he said: "If globalization is to succeed, it must succeed for poor and rich alike. It must deliver rights no less than riches. It must provide social justice and equity no less than economic prosperity and enhanced communication."

I thank you