Opening speech by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Berlin Dialogue on Business and Human Rights “Values, Openness, Partnerships”

18.05.2021 - Speech

200 years after the first labour protections were introduced in Europe, basic labour standards, healthy working conditions and the right to unionise remain out of reach for hundreds of millions of people.

And too often, our global value chains create “value” only in some parts of the world – while they increase the misery in others.

Many of you, ladies and gentlemen, are working to change this. And ten years after adopting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we have indeed come a long way:

Consumers around the world are attaching greater importance to sustainability.

The European Union is discussing a directive that could establish civil liability for human rights abuses in value chains.

And who would have thought ten years ago that Germany would agree on an ambitious due diligence law, which hopefully will be adopted this summer?

So, some might argue that the glass is half full.

But the glass is clearly not full enough, as long as men, women and children around the world continue to suffer under inhumane working conditions.

While the pandemic has made us aware that we are living in One world, it has also had the most devastating effects on the poorest.

Progress in the fight against child labour has come to a halt.

Labour markets have been disrupted like never before in recent history. According to the International Labour Organization, working hours amounting to over 250 million full-time jobs have been lost.

And millions of people working in the informal sector are on the brink of poverty and even starvation.

For them, responsible supply chain management is a silver lining.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Protecting human rights is a duty all States have. It applies to the governments of those countries where goods are produced and to those who consume them.

Three points will be important in this regard.

First: Human rights, social and environmental standards need to be reflected in all of our international trade relations and agreements.

Yes, we want open markets.

But our market must no longer be open to products and companies relying on forced or child labour or on any other practices that violate human rights.

Secondly, building back better after the pandemic won’t work without protecting human rights along global supply chains.

Many of our companies know that. They want to make sure that the quality label “Made in Germany” also holds true for products “Made with Germany”.

Our new human rights due diligence law will serve as an incentive in this regard.

At the European level, we recently introduced a sanctions mechanism, allowing us to name those who systematically violate human rights. It also establishes clear rules for companies to break off business relations with listed persons and entities.

And we welcome the fact that an ambitious EU directive on corporate due diligence is being prepared by the Commission. This is crucial not only to create a more level playing field within Europe, but will also ensure that our values and standards apply to the goods entering our common market and to the way our companies do business.

My third and last point concerns partnerships. They are the basis of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles.

I am therefore very grateful that you, High Commissioner Bachelet and Director-General Ryder, have accepted our invitation today.

Through your work you are setting standards that serve as inclusive references for all of us. In a world of growing political tension, this is ever more important.

At the same time, we are strengthening our cooperation with like-minded governments like yours, Minister Hallberg. Thank you for sharing Sweden’s perspective with us today! And thank you for being an ally when it comes to putting “business and human rights” on the European, transatlantic and global agenda.

And last, but not least, we are benefitting from the exchange with all of you - policy makers, experts and activists.

This is particularly true when it comes to the review of our National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

The second generation of this Plan is currently being prepared.

It highlights aspects that go beyond regulation alone, such as international trade, the protection of human rights defenders in business contexts, development cooperation, and support mechanisms for industry.

We will make sure that these national measures will go hand in hand with the new policy framework on Business and Human Rights that the European External Action Service is working on. And we will continue to encourage all EU member states to adopt action plans of their own.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let us join forces, to ensure that the working conditions of the 19th century finally become what they should be – history.

It starts with a simple realisation –

that we should stop producing, trading or consuming goods that do harm to our fellow human beings.

Thank you very much!


Top of page