I am very happy to have been invited by UNICEF to aid in drawing attention to the critical issue of the impact of businesses on the Rights of our children, specifically in the extractive industry, which, as we are aware contributes significantly to our country’s economy.
I should make it clear from the outset that there are two Ministries, Social Protection and Natural Resources which have specific responsibilities for the rights of our children and the activities of the extractive industries respectively.
Those Ministries are led by competent and concerned Ministers. As the theme of today’s programme suggests, Guyana’s extractive sector is fundamentally, private enterprise and therefore what we are concerned with here today is whether the activities carried out in pursuit of private interests are in keeping with the expectations of a society that regards as important the rights of its children.
But are we such as society? Are we quietly allowing or tolerating or simply ignoring activities that are in gross violation of all that is understood about children’s rights in the twenty-first century? Are we giving private enterprise a free pass at the expense of our most precious asset?
The mantra of the Ministry of Business is Guyana means business and indeed we are a pro-business Ministry, but when business interests clash with fundamental and universal rights of the most vulnerable persons on the planet, we expect these rights to prevail. As our private sector continues to expand in both size and influence it will inevitably impact on the lives of children.
This impact should be a positive one. Businesses bring investments, employment opportunities and new services to communities, and this is what we wish to promote at the Ministry of Business.
However, there is a darker side to certain businesses which we cannot pretend does not exist and this is definitely not what we wish to promote. When we say Guyana means business, we envisage lawful and wholesome businesses which can make valuable contributions to the economic growth and development of our country and our communities.
We must therefore acknowledge the harmful effects of business activities and endeavour at all times to minimize these through measures that address them effectively. We know that businesses cause and contribute to a range of children’s rights violations, such as polluting the environment, paying young children to do dangerous jobs, trafficking in persons as well as physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Our gold and bauxite miners, our timber harvesters and processors, our quarries, and the businesses that support and surround these industries must all begin to make meaningful contributions towards resolving some of these problems. Businesses must take individual responsibility for their impact on children’s rights.
For all of these reasons, it is commendable that UNICEF is hosting a discussion that seeks to explore these issues. We at the Ministry of Business will remain committed to encouraging best practices and respect for the laws of Guyana. One of our initiatives this year is to create a progamme to bring Guyana’s informal economy into greater compliance and into our formal economy. There can be no doubt that Guyana has a large informal business sector through which tax revenues are lost, workers are exploited, regulations are ignored and bad business practices are adopted.
This is what we are seeking to reverse. While our formal economy is not necessarily pristine, it is nevertheless my conviction that the most troubling and challenging violations of the rights of our children resulting from business activities reside within the informal economy. Businesses that operate formally can generally be targeted by legislative measures to change practices that are harmful to children.
However, businesses that operate outside of the law will not be influenced by legislation and it will therefore require special measures to bring them into compliance. Guyana as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, has promised to uphold children’s rights, and as such, has an obligation to provide all the safeguards necessary to ensure that our children are not exploited by a business community that is unregulated, unrestrained and un-policed.
Our businesses need to be aware of what those rights are, as well as what the common malpractices are that impinge on those rights. If the industry in which a business operates is one that is particularly prone to contravening the rights of our children then operators within that industry need to be mandated to implement safeguards to protect these rights from being trampled on.
Our children are dependent on governments and businesses to make decisions that respect their rights and we should not let them down. Extractive operations often occur in the most disadvantaged areas in the world which in many cases are home to vulnerable populations.
Children are especially vulnerable and their protection needs to be specifically addressed at the institutional level. Here in Guyana it is a fact that once one crosses a certain line geographically we seem to disregard all our laws and travel back in time to wild west practices. Nearly all of our businesses in the extractive sector are located in remote areas and this should flag the sector has a high risk one when it comes to upholding the rights of children. Industry stakeholders therefore should ensure that there is proper monitoring for compliance with the Laws of Guyana which protect the rights of the child. Additionally, children are more vulnerable to localized environmental impacts of the extractive industry due to their incomplete physical development. Communities surrounding extractive operations need to be protected from these localized environmental impacts that can adversely affect the health of their children. Those businesses engaged in resource extraction must pay attention to the environmental laws and regulations that govern their industries. In closing I’d like to thank the UNICEF team for the work that they do here in Guyana and I’d like to assure everyone present that the Ministry of Business does take seriously the rights of our children and will support programmes designed to protect those rights.