Business and Human Rights

Why Ireland needs to speak up and support a UN Treaty on Business & Human Rights

Garry Walsh 26 Oct 2020 (8 Min Read)

10 questions answered on why we need a treaty to make global corporations respect human rights.

1. So what’s this global business and human rights treaty all about?

Corporate greed is leading to land being seized, forests being cut down and rivers poisoned. Those who stand up to defend their rights are being harassed, intimidated, even murdered.

Indigenous communities often face the impact of this race for natural resources. The number of killings of human rights defenders in the context of corporate activities is shocking, with an average of over four land and environmental defenders being killed every week in 2019.

Since 2015, more than 2,000 attacks on activists working on human rights issues related to business have been documented by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Women human rights defenders are also being targeted through threats of sexual violence and smear campaigns.

Currently there is no international treaty to ensure businesses respect human rights and the environment. A global binding treaty would be a game-changer in ensuring communities are protected and big business acts ethically.

2. But aren’t there existing laws that companies have to follow?

The 21st-century economy is dominated by large transnational corporations. These private companies are often wealthier and more powerful than the countries they operate in. Corporations hide behind complicated structures to avoid legal responsibility.

Furthermore, communities in the developing world often cannot access justice in their own country, nor access legal remedy in the countries where the corporation is based. For example, under Irish law, there are major barriers for potential victims of human rights violations by an Irish company overseas to seek justice in Irish courts.

Basically, the global human rights legal framework has not kept pace with the modern globalised economy. The measures states are following to protect human rights are largely voluntary and are failing to prevent human rights violations.

If companies are free to pick and choose whether they respect human rights, abuses will continue to occur.

3. So what would a business and human rights treaty actually do?

A binding treaty would make respecting human rights a legal requirement for companies.

It could prevent abuses from happening by making it mandatory for companies to assess the potential human rights impact of their planned operations on local communities. Indigenous people would have to give prior consent to projects that affected them.

It would ensure that companies are held liable for their actions, allowing for sanctions, fine, withdrawal of licenses and criminal liability for severe abuses and impacts.

A treaty would also improve redress, which would open up avenues for victims to seek justice and reparations for harm caused. Multinationals and investors would no longer be able to wash their hands of responsibility by pushing the blame on to their local subsidiaries or by ignoring the poor behaviour of those that they do business with.

A strong treaty will be gender-sensitive and include provisions to protect human rights defenders and allow them to do their work without fear of reprisals.

4. Is this campaign anti-business?

A treaty is not about being anti-business, it’s about responsible business. Jobs and economic growth can allow communities to escape out of poverty. This campaign is not anti-business, it’s about ensuring that the hunt for profit does not violate human rights and destroy the environment in the process.

5. Shouldn’t we just target specific companies?

Campaigns targeting individual companies can be effective at highlighting bad behaviour and sometimes result in changes after ‘naming and shaming’. But what we really need is systematic change and global rules that are enforceable and which all companies have to obey.

Fundamentally, stronger regulation of business globally will have a greater impact than trying to change the behaviour of individual companies. If we change the system, our impact could be huge.

6. But do international treaties work?

Enforcing international treaties always presents difficulties and an international treaty on business and human rights would be no different. While it’s despairing to see Donald Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change treaty, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the world’s countries are still in the Paris treaty and are taking action on a really difficult global problem. Global treaties can work – for example, the Montreal Treaty saved the ozone layer.

7. How is this treaty progressing?

Governments have come together at the UN since 2014 and have negotiated various drafts of a Business and Human Rights Treaty. However, powerful companies are lobbying hard against the creation of this treaty.

As a result, countries that are home states of large transnational corporations have opposed the process. In October 2020 the UN will convene the sixth annual meeting where states will negotiate the second draft of the proposed treaty.

8. Where does the EU/Ireland/UK stand on the creation of the Treaty?

Powerful companies are lobbying hard against the creation of this treaty. As a result, many countries that are home states of large transnational corporations have opposed the process.

In Ireland, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has said he is open to looking at options to progress the Treaty and Ireland has joined a bloc of EU countries who are pushing for increased engagement. However, Ireland has yet to share a full position on the detail of the Treaty or to address the Treaty session in the absence of an EU mandate, as other countries such as France and Spain have done.

Disappointingly, the EU is strongly opposed to a Treaty on Business and Human Rights. The EU has historically stood in opposition to the negotiations, including dissociating from the recommendations and conclusions of the process in 2018. More recently, the EU has supported the urgent need to address negative human rights impacts of business. However, for the EU to be in a position to engage in the UN treaty negotiations, a formal negotiation mandate is required by EU law. The EU has once again failed to achieve this mandate in advance of the sixth session of negotiations in October 2020.

The UK has also not engaged in the process to create the Treaty. However, guidance on UK Support for Human Rights Defenders includes a pledge to use all routes, bilateral and multilateral, to create stronger global standards to support and protect human rights defenders. In light of this, the UK should participate constructively in the Treaty process.

9. How can I make a difference?

We need to show governments that there is strong support for this Treaty. People power is essential for our governments to take notice. Learn more and take action here.

10. How can I learn more about this issue?

You can watch this video to learn more about the treaty from UN experts, human rights defenders and activists around the world.

To get deeper into the issue, please read our report: “Towards a transformative treaty on Business and Human Rights” which outlines why we need for a global treaty and what it should contain.