A national plan for business and human rights?

This week I was fortunate to be able to participate in a conference in Seville on the implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. The conference featured a number of international speakers and experts in this area and paid particular attention to the development of a national implementation plan for the guiding principles in Spain.

I spoke on the challenges and prospects for the development of such an implementation plan in the Irish context. Readers of the blog will be aware that the Irish government, when asked, has said that it is currently considering how best to proceed with the development of such a plan. The responses given by Eamon Gilmore to questions put by members of the opposition are the only indication we have that this process is underway. As participants in the conference were well aware, the European Commission in its 2011 communication on corporate social responsibility “Invites EU Member States to develop by the end of 2012 national plans for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles”.

Professor Michael Addo, a member of the United Nations Working Group on business and human rights, emphasised the importance of national implementation plans in his keynote speech to the conference. He had praise for countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark who have already adopted such plans, and estimated that 19 members of the European Union are currently engaged in developing national plans on business and human rights. We simply do not know how far along that process is in Ireland.

Professor Addo also viewed the implementation of the guiding principles as “an organic process”, one that should involve all “stakeholders”, including business and civil society. In my presentation, I noted that there has been minimal engagement with the United Nations guiding principles by the State, companies or by representative business organisations. Civil society beyond the trade unions has also been slow to include issues of corporate responsibility in their human rights work.

The mainstreaming of business and human rights within the United Nations system was also touched upon at the conference. There is a move underway to ensure that States are answerable for their own conduct and those of companies under their jurisdiction as part of assessments of their overall human rights performance. It would be prudent of Ireland to advance its implementation of the guiding principles before difficult questions start to be asked in Brussels or Geneva.

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