Before he was elected President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins was an active Labour politician and served as a member of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights. In 2008, the Sub-Committee devoted some attention to the role of the private sector in relation to human rights. Michael D. Higgins was somewhat pessimistic in his views, remarking during the session on the absence of notable progress in this area:
I am at a loss to identify any great achievements of the ethical globalisation movement, to which reference has been made. It reminds me uncomfortably — perhaps I am wrong — of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which I encountered for the first time when it was present at the United Nations conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The council had no difficulty in signing up to the concept of sustainability. The chair was the vice president of Fiat and the vice chair was the managing director of Nescafé. They were accorded full state rights at the UN conference, even though many small atolls and others in the Pacific had no representation at the conference.
He found there to be “a general failure in the atmosphere surrounding the vindication of human rights in the international economic sphere”, and especially in the context of trade negotiations:
The free trade agreements which are negotiated on a bilateral basis by major countries — so that I can appear to be even handed I mention China, the European Union and so forth — have a heavy component of companies [...]. They are all in there. We may pray for their conversion or hope for an outbreak of ethics in the corporate sector. However, real vigilance which will come through institutional reform and the control of transnational corporation is the only way to go. The renewal of the mandate of the special representative of the Secretary General is valuable as a step.
John Ruggie, the Special Representative to whom he referred, has now completed that mandate and the Human Rights Council has endorsed the United Nations Framework and Guiding Principles on business and human rights. There remains some way to go, however, especially as regards enforcement. Michael D. raised this issue of binding enforcement in 2008 in the context of the then unratified UN Convention again Corruption:
The weakness of the voluntary mechanisms is illustrated by the suggested alternative OECD codes of practice. I am one who does not give tuppence for this. I am being blunt. It is a very poor substitute for any kind of legal, justiciable or enforceable measure. [...] one needs an enforceable instrument to be able to impose discipline on people who have more or less said they can ride roughshod over others. We have examples in companies such as Shell and others which mock the parliamentary process and also abuse it but we had better not say much more about that.
The mandate of the Special Representative did not produce an enforceable instrument on business and human rights, and John Ruggie had specifically sought to avoid what he saw as a divisive debate over voluntary versus binding approaches. The demand for a legally enforceable instrument, as articulated by Michael D. Higgins and many others, has not subsided. In recent months there have been renewed calls by a group of States led by Ecuador and a coalition of international NGOs for the United Nations to take concrete steps to ensure that corporate responsibilities for human rights are made binding and enforceable. As the current Irish President rightly put it, this is “the only way to go”.