Last week, the
UN for the first time formally discussed measures to make corporations legally
accountable for human rights abuses. A historic session in Geneva concluded on
July 10th after a week of intense and constructive discussions between
countries, expert panelists and civil society organisations, with hopes high that
the process could deliver a treaty that could finally bring justice and
protection to millions.
transnational corporations (TNCs) are expected to police themselves – and so
the list of cases where they are directly or indirectly involved in human
rights violations and environmental damage is extensive. As the talks began,
Friends of the Earth groups in Nigeria and the USA released a new report
detailing land grabs carried out by the oil palm giant Wilmar international.
The meeting was
one of two open sessions on the topic – the second is scheduled for 2016 – with
a treaty proposal to be developed for 2017.
Geneva session in July 2015 the EU had already announced it was not planning to
take part in discussions on the scope and content of such a treaty. European
NGOs like Friends of the Earth Europe have reached out actively to both EU
member states and the European Parliament to ensure that the EU participates in
a constructive way.
van Schaik, accountable finance campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe,
explains the UN treaty process and who's fighting for it
delegation attended the first day of the meeting, where it insisted on changes
to the programme of work. The main demand of the EU was for a broad
interpretation of the Treaty's mandate to include all business in the
negotiations – not just TNCs.
on the scope of the Treaty was already on the agenda, so many states did not
want to make a precondition to already agree on what the scope should be. Civil
society organisations present in Geneva unanimously condemned the
unconstructive EU attitude, with #stopcorporateabuse trending on Twitter. While
this Twitter storm may have stopped the EU from actively derailing the
proceedings further, the EU and its member states were absent from the
discussions from Tuesday afternoon onwards as their proposals found no support
from other states.
By adopting an
'empty chair' policy in Geneva instead of engaging in a productive debate, the
EU gives a signal that it is not interested in providing access to justice to
victims, and effectively creating an exit strategy for the Geneva negotiations.
The concern is that would the EU and its member states to vote against the
treaty because of its content, since they had not participated in the talks
that produced it.
Corporate human rights abuses tend to occur in areas where the state apparatus
is weak, and where the legal system is compromised or inadequate. Many
corporations are also richer and more powerful than the states seeking to
regulate them. Corporate campaign financing for political candidates also
creates a layer of impunity for TNCs.
cases last a lifetime in Nigeria, and companies are happy with that"
said Goodwin Ojo, director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the
Earth Nigeria referring to environmental damages committed by the French
TNC Total in Nigeria.
The lack of
legal protection afforded to citizen victims of corporate human rights abuses
is especially striking given controversial "investor-protection"
measures that corporations enjoy around the world. Many free-trade agreements
include so-called "Investor-to-State Dispute Mechanisms", or ISDS,
allow corporations to sue national governments for changes in legislation that
could damage profits.
instrument making TNCs legally accountable for their human rights violations
and to ensure effective access to justice for victims is essential to rebalance
Yet while many
states from the global South were present and engaged in the process throughout
the week, countries from the global North – often home to TNCs – were largely
absent. Their concern was that these negotiations for a binding treaty would
obstruct the good implementation of the existing UN Guiding Principles on
Business and Human rights – a set of voluntary guidelines for businesses.
However, most of
the states that were present at the session (mainly from the South) were open
to discussions and debate. Even though some divergence was visible on certain
issues such on the type of companies covered by the treaty, consensus seemed to
emerge on some points, like the need for the treaty to cover not just gross
human rights violations, but also other types of rights – such as core labour rights
and environmental rights. The binding nature of the final treaty, and the need
to improve access to justice for victims of corporate human rights abuses were
also largely recognised by states. Contributions from expert panelists and
civil society organisations also helped to have constructive and in-depth
concluded with general satisfaction from the room and the hope that this
ongoing process could effectively ultimately lead to a binding instrument on
business and human rights. That said, it is understood that the road towards
any agreement will be long, and will need the backing of countries absent
during this week's discussions. The next session of this Intergovernmental
Working Group will occur in 2016, and a final proposal will be presented in
2017 to the UNHRC. The battle to put an end to corporate impunity and protect
human rights effectively continues.