Guest Post: National Action Plans on business and human rights – Should we care?

The latest guest blog in the series is from Claire Methven O’Brien, who is Strategic Adviser to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Denmark’s National Human Rights Institution. You can follow her on twitter: @claire_ob1

Since 2011, there has been a concerted movement towards the idea that States should develop National Action Plans (NAPs) to support implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

The European Commission was the first to call for NAPS,[1] issuing an invitation to EU governments in its 2011 policy on CSR. The UN Human Rights Council followed suit earlier this year,[2] as did the Council of Europe, with its Council of Ministers calling for States to develop NAPs in a recent Declaration. A draft Council of Europe Declaration, currently under negotiation, envisages a periodic dialogue with States about their NAPs to involve stakeholders.[3]

In response to the EU’s request, NAPs have so far been published by governments in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Finland, and they are under development in a number of others, including Spain, Italy and Germany, and also Switzerland, albeit not an EU member.

Catching the tide, President Obama announced in September that the US would develop a NAP. In the Americas, both Colombia and Chile are, if I may be excused a pun, well on the road to NAPs-ville.

As reported on this blog, after some delay, and some cajoling, the Irish Government has announced it too will join the NAPs club. A whole session will be dedicated to NAPs at the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade’s annual NGO Forum on business and human rights later this week. The Irish Centre for Human Rights, Al Haq, ICTU and Trocaire, amongst others, have already provided valuable recommendations to frame that discussion.

Back to the USSR?

But for some, the whole idea of NAPs might seem like an anachronism, a Soviet-style throw-back to a bygone era of centralised national planning which did not end well – for government, for business or for human rights.

What, then, are the touted virtues of UNGPs NAPs today? What is at stake to justify stakeholders in spending precious time and resources to push for and get involved in a UNGPs NAP process, in the face of other pressing and more concrete human rights issues?

Reasons to be NAP-py

Here, drawing on the NAPs report and Toolkit recently launched by DIHR and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, are five short reasons that all players should consider buying into a NAP process in Ireland:

  1. Stocktaking: There are few parts of government the UNGPs don’t reach. While this open-ended nature is one of their strengths, it also means that most governments, including Ireland’s, are starting from square one in assessing implementation. A NAP process is the perfect platform for identifying the unknowns – and the unknown unknowns – and seeking inputs from affected parties before the government commits to new policies or defining priorities, rather than after.
  1. Visibility: A NAP process, done right, can act as a beacon for rights-holders and stakeholders. There are many groups whose human rights are affected by business activity but who fall outside the “CSR” or “development” camps – consider persons with disabilities, children, and the elderly inside Ireland, or users of public services, such as water. The UNGPs are currently the preserve of a mere handful of experts. A NAP process should extend this circle and have an empowering effect in the process. Accessible regional or local level workshops, and awareness-raising and human rights education are therefore key to an optimal NAPs process.
  1. Exposure: In business and human rights, all countries have their dirty secrets. Some policies, such as silence over human rights during trade missions, may seem acceptable and expedient in their own terms. But sunlight, as Justice Brandeis said, is the best disinfectant. A NAP dialogue presents the chance to juxtapose unprincipled compromises made in dark places with high moral values espoused by governments in international fora – and to seek a proper reconciliation between the two.
  1. Dialogue: Human rights is about building bridges, not walls. Enterprises and their organisations have to know about, understand and champion the UNGPs if they are going to be of benefit to anybody. Yet businesses can be easily alienated from human rights if they experience them only as a brickbat thrown at them when things go wrong. A NAPs process can provide a neutral space for sharing experiences of common challenges and airing possible solutions. Once opened via a NAPs process, channels of communication between stakeholders should stay open – hopefully leading to more prevention of business-related abuses, and fewer after-the-event sticking plaster solutions, which would be in everyone’s interests.
  1. Home-grown priorities: Human rights and business issues are legion. Sadly, no government in the real world is going to deal with them all at once, and at least in the short term, choices will have to be made. On one hand, what is key, in this context, is that, selected priorities attack the most urgent problems – those where serious human rights violations are threatened, where impacts are widespread or systematic, or where vulnerable rights-holders are at risk – and do not merely tackle the “low-hanging fruit”. On the other hand, governments and businesses will inevitably want to play to their strengths, for example, by tying in new initiatives with existing measures or commitments. Given this, the only way national priorities can be identified with legitimacy is through an inclusive, human-rights based dialogue, and ideally climaxing in the adoption of a NAP by cross-stakeholder consensus.

Of course, not all pathways to NAPs will yield these anticipated benefits: as a current review of published NAPs by the ECCJ reveals that, in NAPs, as in life, the journey is often as important as the destination. As a result of weak NAPs processes, some governments have already missed golden opportunities both to broaden support for the UNGPs and strengthen the quality of governance in one go.

Laying a heavy emphasis on inclusiveness, transparency and clear arrangements for monitoring and follow-up, DIHR and ICAR have identified ten criteria for NAPs processes, which, if met, should help governments to avoid such pitfalls. If the Irish government manages to do so, both businesses and civil society will welcome it. At the same time, the credibility, at home and abroad, of Irish commitments to the human rights based approach will be given an enormous fillip.

[1] European Commission, A Renewed EU Strategy 2011-14 for Corporate Social Responsibility, COM(2011)681Final.

[2] UN Human Rights Council Resolution of 23 June 2014, UN Doc A/HRC/26/L.I.

[3] Council of Europe, Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 16 April 2014; Draft Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on human rights and business (CDDH-CORP(2014)10).

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