Opening speech at seminar on human rights defenders

State Secretary Audun Halvorsen's opening speech at a seminar on "Environmental human rights defenders under threat from business operations". The seminar was organised by Amnesty International Norway and Rainforest Foundation Norway.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, thank you to Amnesty International Norway and Rainforest Foundation Norway for organising this important and timely event.

I would also like to thank the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr Michel Forst, for travelling all the way to Oslo to be with us here today.

Mr Forst's latest report to the UN General Assembly, as well as recent reports by Global Witness, point to some very disturbing trends: Two hundred environmental activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders trying to protect their land were killed in 2016. This is more than double the number killed five years ago and it has increased over the years, as Lars mentioned.

Human rights defenders working to improve the state of the environment are facing extraordinary risks all over the world. It is a sad and disturbing fact that indigenous human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable. As you know, they are targeted specifically because they are seeking to protect land and resources that are intrinsic parts of their culture and economy.

This is why the Norwegian Government attaches great importance to our partnerships with the Norwegian Rain Forest Foundation and other civil society organisations. These partnerships are vital in promoting indigenous peoples rights under the Norwegian Climate and Forest Initiative.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The common global effort that culminated in the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals marked an important step forward. The SDGs are global in nature, but local in their application, and the business sector plays a crucial part in achieving these goals. Business has a great impact on people's lives – on their jobs, on their environment and on their hopes for the future. The concept of responsible business conduct is based on this understanding.

To reach the SDGs, we have to work together. Business impacts on People and Planet, as well as on Profit, and has a vital role to play. It is therefore encouraging to see that many Norwegian businesses are embracing Agenda 2030. Sustainable economic growth is key to success in a wide range of areas.

But we will not reach the SDGs unless we allow the full range of voices in our societies to be heard.

The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are crucial in all parts of the world. Civil society should be encouraged to play its role in holding authorities and businesses accountable, and thus helping to ensure that national laws and international human rights standards are respected.

Of course this does not mean that authorities and companies will always agree with everything human rights defenders say. Our roles and points of departure are different. But open debate and transparencey is crucial in all societies. Without open debate, it is not possible to develop effective, inclusive and sustainable policies.

To achieve this, we again have to work together – governments, civil society and the private sector. And our efforts must be based on the principle of leaving no one behind, and on the need to safeguard the environment for present and future generations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Next year we will be celebrating several Human Rights anniversaries. We will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

But we can not just be celebrating. More importantly, we should use this opportunity, this milestone, to step up our efforts to counter attacks on the international human rights system, including attempts to undermine effective implementation at the national level or even local. We must stand and defend the norms and institutions that the international community has built over decades.

For its part, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to provide both political and financial support for a range of initiatives and activities worldwide aimed at safeguarding human rights norms and institutions. This is building on the priorities set out in the 2014 white paper on human rights, titled Opportunities for All. With the white paper, the government made a commitment to putting "human rights at the heart of Norway's foreign and development policy". That is a challenging ambition.

Again, Geir Sjøberg will take you into some of the practical implications of that ambition later today. Looking more closely at Norway's work to advance human rights, the protection of human rights defenders is a key issue in that work, both politically and financially.

But allow me to underline that our human rights policy includes an explicit expectation that Norwegian companies comply with recognised international standards for responsible business conduct.

The Norwegian national action plan on business and human rights is based on the UN Guiding Principles. The action plan sets out how Norway will implement the 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' framework.

As part of our work, Norway supports the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and welcomes its increased focus on human rights defenders and business.

We also follow closely the work of the open-ended intergovernmental working group for an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.

And to address that issue, which will surely be discussed here today, the logic of proposing an international treaty to provide a more solid foundation for human rights defenders to exercise their rights, is understandable. Yet, those who have initiated the discussions towards a treaty to regulate multinational companies' human rights obligations, do not seem to be in the forefront of protecting and promoting such rights in their own constituencies.

The Guiding Principles adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011 apply to all businesses. They are based on the understanding that human rights violations stemming from business operations are violations, whether they are committed by national, international or multinational companies.

The Norwegian National Plan of Action for business and human rights, based on the Guiding Principles, reflects the position of the Norwegian Government. These principles can make an important difference where they are applied. And we see that they have strong normative power. Furthermore, they serve as a guide to achieving the 2030 Agenda by ensuring that no-one is left behind; neither by States nor by business.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before drawing these brief opening remarks to a close, I would like to echo a few words spoken by UN Secretary-General Guterres:

As we work to promote all human rights, (we) want to express a word of appreciation and admiration to those on the frontlines. To human rights defenders, (we) say: Thank you for your courage. (We) are on your side.

So, on behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I wish you every success with this seminar and – more importantly - with the work ahead.

Thank you for your attention.