Conference ‘children’s rights and business’: opening remarks by Minister Reynders
Conference ‘children’s rights and business’
Monday 3 December 2012, Egmont Palace, Brussels
Opening remarks by H.E. Mr Didier Reynders,
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Foreign Trade and European Affairs
Her Royal Highness Princess Mathilde,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First, let me express my delight at being able to welcome you all today in the Egmont Palace for this important event dedicated to Children’s rights, and more specifically to how Business can contribute to their promotion and protection.
Since I took charge of the Foreign Affairs Department a year ago exactly, the buildings of my ministry in general, and the Palace in particular, have been hosting a series of conferences, roundtables, seminars and workshops dedicated to the rights and dignity of the human person in all its aspects: freedom of expression, protection of minorities, international humanitarian law, equal opportunity, labor standards, LGBT rights...
Over the same period of time, I also had the occasion to convene in the same rooms multiple gatherings involving federations of industries, business councils and chambers of commerce, true to my firm belief that trade and investment will have a key part to play in the economic, social and jobs recovery, not only in Belgium and Europe, but also worldwide.
In Brussels thus, but also in Geneva, in New York and elsewhere, I have been calling simultaneously for more human rights and more free movement of goods, services and capital. Would there be any contradiction there as some seem to believe? Is there any incompatibility? Maybe a sign of some bipolar political disorder?
The answer is “certainly not”. Quite the opposite, actually! Indeed, trade and economic integration have been the most powerful vectors for peace, development and welfare in the world over the past 75 years, singularly through the internal market in Europe, and will be central in helping many more developing nations progress on the path of democracy and the respect of human liberties, the way Korea, Southeast Asia, Latin America or Central Europe have over the past few decades.
This is why I see my responsibilities as Foreign Minister and as Minister of Foreign Trade as complementary and even mutually reinforcing. The promotion and protection of human rights and of the rule of law are also key for the business climate. And economic progress is also contributing to the enhancement of human rights.
Of course, not every trade is sacred, not every trade is good… But here also, the past twenty years have seen a tectonic change in the way the industry at large commits to promoting essential rights, understanding that Corporate Social Responsibility, transparency, accountability and the promotion of high standards are not merely burdens imposed on business, or a killer of shareholder value, but the keys to sustainable and lasting productivity and return on capital.
Cooperation between business, non-profit and government has to become the virtuous triangle of international growth and development. I am therefore delighted with my Department’s involvement as focal point for the UN Global Compact Belgium, as I am proud of what our diplomacy is achieving in the framework of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Corporations, of the Kimberley Process and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) or at the United Nations. I had for instance the privilege to host last September in the margin of the Ministerial week at the United Nations in New York a successful event on Transparency, Sustainable Development and Natural Resources. Together with other partners, Belgium is planning to table during this session of the General Assembly a draft resolution on this topic.
All this, of course, without mentioning what we have achieved together with our EU partners in the same fields and in many other domains related to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Yes, human rights are at the center of the Belgian Foreign Policy and, as I had the privilege to state last year on the occasion of international human rights day, campaigning for children’s rights is a priority within this priority. Belgium has for instance insisted on the inclusion of specific actions on children’s rights in the EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy that was adopted on 25 June 2012. Our country will also do its share of the work to put these actions into reality.
Belgium is signatory to all UN international instruments and conventions protecting the children’s rights. The ratification process of the new Third Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child establishing a set of communications procedures is running its course as we speak and I am optimistic that Belgium will ratify in the near future. But beyond that, through its development cooperation programs and through various initiatives, our country supports the implementation of children’s rights.
Is that enough?
As a State, or even as a group of states if you consider the EU as a whole, you need to convince your citizens to be part or even to be an actor of the process when you try to achieve a goal. This is also true for the Business community.
Corporate social responsibility is a relatively new concept but it has been gaining importance fast as a way for companies to control the impact on their environment. A lot of initiatives and instruments have been set up either by the private sector itself, or by public actors to reinforce the development of Corporate Social Responsibility.
The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights developed by Mr. John Ruggie, Special representative of the Secretary General of the UN, are one of the most recent and effective instruments conceived to help companies to take the Human Rights dimension into account.
These Guiding Principles are built upon the United Nations framework: Protect, Respect, Remedy… Governments have the obligation to protect their citizens, but companies also have to commit to respect human rights, both having to act together in order to rectify problems arising where they operate.
In the introduction of the UN guiding principles, one can read:
“Business companies should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved”.
The UN guiding principles are an important and useful tool at the disposal of companies. But this tool was not sufficient in itself to efficiently guarantee children’s rights. Important stakeholders, like UNICEF, Global Compact and Save the Children, have therefore decided to launch a new initiative called “Children’s rights and Business principles”. These principles are designed to serve as the first comprehensive instrument dedicated to guiding companies in their action to respect and support the rights of children.
These guidelines will be at the core of the discussion of the conference today. It will be a major opportunity to hear experts who will explain how companies can implement these principles and why they should do it. It is not a question of philanthropy but, as I already mentioned, part of the best way a company can develop its sustainability in the long run. I am thus particularly happy that this conference can count on the participation of a lot of Belgian and international business representatives who are already convinced of the necessity to implement these principles in their various companies and who want to exchange their best practices.
But we should also recognize that it is sometimes quite difficult for a company to ensure that its supply chain is totally free of any risk. When a product is made in a remote country through various suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, it is not always an easy task to detect the problems. There is also a responsibility of local governments to control how local companies act as far as children’s rights are concerned. Companies should not automatically and systematically been blamed for any problem that would arise in their supply chain. But of course, the more attentive these companies will be to the issue, the better children’s rights will be protected.
It is also important that the same criteria for Corporate Social Responsibility policy are implemented by the major stakeholders, private and public, in order to avoid a distorted global playing field. Responsibilities are thus shared among governments and companies. Let us work together for a better world for children, one in which they should stop being the usual victims when it comes to human rights violations. I am sure that this conference will contribute to this simple but so fundamental goal.
I thank you all for your commitments and wish you productive exchanges during today’s conference.
I thank you for your attention.