Ireland came before the Human Rights Committee this July for its periodic review of compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Readers may recall that in the list of issues put out by the Committee last year, it made the following request of the Irish government:
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.
Ireland issued a written reply in which it focused mostly on the issue of export controls and compliance with EU sanctions, without discussing the activities of Irish companies outside of Ireland. It reiterated its commitment to the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights and explained that it continues to consider how best to implement the framework.
When Ireland came before the Committee in July, business and human rights issues were also raised during the interaction between the members of the Committee and the Irish delegation according to the summary records of the meeting. Professor Yuval Shany asked:
… whether Irish corporations’ overseas conduct which could result in violations of the Covenant were monitored to ensure compliance with the terms of export licences, whether civil society could submit information to the authorities on the matter and whether oversight mechanisms also monitored the provision of services outside the State party’s territory.
He also asked the delegation from Ireland:
… to provide details of the proposed practical implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to comment on whether allegations of the complicity of Irish construction companies involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in alleged human rights violations were being investigated.
Colin Wrafter, of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, provided the response on these questions, explaining that the Irish Government is developing a national plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles “in an attempt to prevent human rights abuses by Irish companies operating abroad”. The national plan will be prepared “by the relevant ministries following consultations with representatives of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, businesses, trade unions, civil society and universities”. On the specific concerns raised regarding Qatar, he responded that:
The Government shared the Committee’s concerns regarding the situation facing foreign workers on building sites in Qatar. During a recent visit to the country, the Minister of Trade and Development had voiced his concerns to the Qatari authorities in respect of the working conditions of those workers and the human rights violations committed against them. Several Irish companies were currently operating in Qatar, but the delegation had received no information to indicate that one or more of them had been involved in violations of workers’ rights, as some sources alleged.
The response naturally brushes over the controversy of a prior visit to Qatar by a high-level Irish government delegation in which such concerns were purposely not raised. It is obviously important that such concerns are raised during trade missions, but such human rights diplomacy tends to take place behind closed doors and it is difficult to assess effectiveness in particular cases.
It is the latter aspect of the response, however, that demonstrates the passive attitude of the Irish government towards the activities of Irish companies doing business outside of Ireland. The answer indicates that unless specific information of human rights violations is received by the Government, it considers that it does not need to take any action. In the specific case of Qatar, such information is not easily available, given the restrictions on trade union membership, the press and civil society – two British human rights workers investigating the treatment of migrant workers have just been released after having been detained by Qatari authorities for over a week.
A more meaningful commitment to ensuring business respect for human rights would put an onus on companies to provide information demonstrating their compliance with human rights standards. The Irish government’s approach, as demonstrated in its response, goes to one of the central concerns of business and human rights, which is how to ensure that companies who operate in countries where human rights are not adequately protected, and where information is not readily available, do not become complicit in such violations. In consultations on a national implementation plan for the UN Guiding Principles, this topic will need to be addressed, despite the likelihood of differing opinions on the scope of a State’s duty to protect human rights.