Mary Robinson’s address to the United Nations business and human rights forum

Last week on the blog, I posted some observations by the current President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins on business and human rights. These were made several years ago before he assumed office, but they have retained their validity, especially his comment on the need for a binding legal instrument in this area.

A former Irish President, Mary Robinson, has been especially active in the area of business and human rights, both during and after her time as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier this month, she gave an address to the second annual United Nations Forum on business and human rights in Geneva, making a number of interesting points about progress in this area to date and what is needed for the future.

Mary Robinson noted firstly that business and human rights has “moved from the margins of international policy debates”, as evidenced by the 2011 endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the Guiding Principles on business and human rights. This was despite the deep divisions that had existed around a decade ago prior to the beginning of the Ruggie mandate, although these have not fully dissipated. And despite the coming into existence of the Guiding Principles, “human rights abuses linked to business activity remain all too common”, she observed.

Climate justice, where she currently focuses much of her attention, needs to be more effectively linked to human rights and, she argued, the private sector shown that acting in relation to climate change “is not a constraint but an opportunity and makes good business sense”.  This obviously only goes so far, and one wonders also whether the enthusiasm she recounts for which certain business leaders have shown for the United Nations Guiding Principles points in some ways towards their lack of enforcement. She is probably right in describing them as “an important tool for moving us all in the right direction”. It was interesting to see how she applied the framework of the Guiding Principles to the issue of climate justice, stating that:

an acceptance that all fossil fuels are contributing to the problem should be enough to engage business in respecting the human rights of those whose lives, livelihoods and cultures are at risk and taking measures to protect them.

Mary Robinson was clear that States have a duty to ensure that business respect human rights:

Business can play an important role in contributing to development and the delivery of global public goods – if it respects human rights. This also means an important role for government in seeing to it that the right incentives and disincentives to respect human rights are in place to steer business practice, including through shaping public-private partnerships that are rights-respecting, rights-promoting and place clear emphasis on accountability.

States must also make a concerted effort to remove barriers to remedies for victims, especially when the abuses rise to the level of international crimes. The privileged place of corporations in law meant that “We find ourselves today in the truly anomalous situation where such conduct by states is proscribed by international law, but the corporate form still provides companies with impunity”. What is needed, she urged, is effective implementation of the Guiding Principles on business and human rights.  The Irish government really needs to show a some urgency here and act on the advice of one of its most prominent human rights personalities.

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