Guest Post: Trócaire on strengthening the Government’s approach to business and human rights

A warm welcome to Selina Donnelly, Policy Officer for Trócaire, who provides the latest guest post in advance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Forum on ‘Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles.’  Trócaire have prepared a detailed policy position paper on the subject that is available here.

Ireland has an excellent record in engaging with international human rights instruments. Despite this, relatively little attention has been afforded to the issue of business and human rights in Ireland to date. The development of an effective National Action Plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights therefore provides Ireland a valuable opportunity to reflect on their approach to business and human rights, to identify any gaps in the legal and regulatory framework and to take action to strengthen the overall government approach.

The second UN Guiding Principle states that:

States should set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction respect human rights throughout their operations.

This goes beyond the enforcement of human rights within their own territories, which is vitally important given the increasing globalisation of business, and growth of corporate influence. The second UNGP highlights the role of the home state (i.e. the state of incorporation of the transnational corporation) in ensuring that their enterprises also respect human rights in their activities abroad.

This takes on particular importance, in the context of a range of recent Irish government strategies which have strongly emphasised the promotion of Ireland’s economic and trade interests overseas in order to contribute to Ireland’s economic recovery. The functions of the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were merged, and the role of the Irish Embassy network heavily emphasised in a particular increase in efforts by government and semi state bodies to increase Irish private sector activity (trade and direct investment by Irish owned companies) in “high growth” developing markets across the Middle East, Asia and also Africa. The risk that Irish businesses and other companies involved in the supply chains in which they operate become either directly responsible for, or complicit in human rights violations is significant, particularly in countries with poor human rights records, weak or absent regulatory environments, and/or low state capacity to enforce existing laws in their jurisdiction. In some cases, governments will commit human rights violations themselves in order to facilitate commercial activity of multinational corporations (MNCs.) In the early 1990’s in Burma, for example, the military forcibly relocated several villages, inflicting murder, rape and torture in the process to make way for a new pipeline, managed by a consortium of US and European corporations.

Trócaire, our partner agencies, and the communities with which we work have witnessed first hand, and often with devastating effect how voluntary and self regulatory approaches to business and human right have failed many vulnerable people worldwide. In Honduras, Trócaire have been working with civil society organisations in the Aguan Valley, a fertile region marred by land conflicts between peasant groups and private companies, such as the Dinant corporation.(1) This conflict over land has led to increasing militarisation of the region, escalating into alarming levels of violence and human rights abuses by the military and company private security guards since 2008 onwards, including assassinations, beatings, forced disappearances, kidnapping, and torturing, and sexual abuse of women.

It is critical that all states and companies act with urgency to address these vast human rights protection gaps. One opportunity for doing so is grasping the opportunity to develop a strong and effective National Action Plan implementing the UNGPs.

Trócaire have developed a series of recommendations and I highlight below three critical components which should be prioritised in an Irish NAP.

1. Access to remedy for victims of human rights violations by business 

Ireland should review how best to ensure remedy for potential victims overseas of human rights abuses by Irish companies, ensuring that victims of human rights abuses are not faced with undue barriers to justice including legal, procedural, or financial barriers.

The way in which businesses operate in a globalised world means that states can no longer ignore the imperative to ensure that their corporations respect human rights, wherever they are operating, nor can they automatically assume resistance from business to such necessary regulation. In many cases, companies themselves are calling for clarity and guidance to be provided, as illustrated by the call from large retailers such as Tesco, Marks and Spencer’s, and IKEA in support of the development of new anti slavery legislation currently underway in the UK parliament at the moment.

2. State business nexus – human rights due diligence and ethical procurement and investment

The Irish government should protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises by promoting human right due diligence in all Irish companies, and at an absolute minimum require all state owned companies and agencies, in particular those with a significant overseas presence (for example, Enterprise Ireland,  BordBia, ESB International) to demonstrate the highest possible attention to their human rights policy statements, mandatory human right due diligence,and remedial processes, thus providing a leading example to other Irish business.

Similarly, the Irish government procurement process should reward HR reporting and due diligence through use of appropriately weighted scoring systems, and should exclude from tendering processes any company which is complicit in human rights violations. In one example, by excluding products from or companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements.

The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, which replaces the National Pension Reserve Fund, should out in place a responsible investment policy. (Trócaire previously campaigned on the lack of a responsible investment policy for the NPRF; there is no indication that further ethical guidelines have been out in place for the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund).

3. Gender focus

Acknowledging that business activities may have different impacts on women and men, a gender focus should be integrated in all elements of the Irish NAP.

One recent shocking example, of differential impacts of violations of human rights by businesses on men and women was the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, where 1,120 garment factory workers in a supply chain producing agreements for many well known international clothing brands were killed when the building they were working in collapsed. Up to 80% of those killed were young women, reflecting what has been called the “deliberate feminization” of the apparel industry, whereby employers prefer to hire women on the basis that they are prepared to work longer hours for lower pay, and are less likely to complain, than their male counterparts, thus increasing their vulnerability to human rights abuses.

Scant attention has been paid to gender in the four EU NAPs published to date (UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland.) Ireland should ensure that our strong commitment to gender equality in foreign affairs policy is reflected in the NAP.

(1) See http://business-humanrights.org/en/dinant

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