Further evidence of the mainstreaming of business and human rights within the United Nations human rights system emerged this week when the Human Rights Committee specifically asked Ireland to provide information regarding its approach to extraterritorial violations of human rights by Irish companies. Ireland is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and will be examined by the Committee in July 2014. In the list of issues for Ireland adopted at the 109th session of the Human Rights Committee, the following request was put to Ireland:
Please provide information on how the Government addresses concerns regarding the activities of private businesses based in the State party that may lead to violations of the Covenant outside the territory of the State party.
This is an important development in the work of the Human Rights Committee, reflecting the growing attention being paid to business and human rights in the United Nations generally and continuing a trend that has begun with the Committee itself. In its Concluding Observations regarding Germany in 2012, the Committee encouraged Germany “to set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in its territory and/or its jurisdiction respect human rights standards in accordance with the Covenant throughout their operations”. It also addressed the need to strengthen remedies for victims of human rights violations abroad, and Ireland will be expected to provide similar information on this important aspect of business and human rights.
Speaking at the 13th NGO human rights forum organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister, Eamon Gilmore, spoke of how seriously the Government takes its reporting requirements under the international human rights treaties to which Ireland is a party. Business and human rights is just one of several issues that the Government will have to respond to, and the Department has indicated that it will respond to the Human Rights Committee in advance of July 2014. The Department will lead the reporting to the Human Rights Committee, the Minister noted, while also announcing a review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy and the launching of a public consultation on this in due course.
The Minister reiterated that human rights have been a “central concern” of Irish foreign policy since independence. The role of Irish embassies around the world, however, includes “supporting Irish business, encouraging investment and tourism, providing services to our citizens, and standing up for our interests and our values”. There may be times when foreign policy goals are at odds with human rights, as Dr Stephen Humphreys noted at the forum. From an Irish perspective, trade missions have been undertaken to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries that were correctly highlighted by various NGOs at the forum as raising serious and ongoing human rights concerns. The Irish government needs to make it much clearer how it ensures that Irish companies doing business in such countries do not become complicit in human rights violations. That the United Nations Human Rights Committee has posed this question now means we are much more likely to get a meaningful answer.