Speech by Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on business and human rights

Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan TD, gave an opening address to this year’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade NGO Human Rights Forum. The overall theme was ‘Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles’, and the Minister’s speech comprises the most detailed discussion of business and human rights by a senior Irish member of cabinet to date. The speech has been made available on the Department’s website (and was also excerpted in the Irish Independent) and I reproduce it here in full:

Ambassadors, distinguished panellists, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome

I warmly welcome you all here today to Dublin Castle to the fourteenth DFAT NGO Forum on Human Rights. The topic of today’s Forum is “Business and Human Rights – Implementing the UN Guiding Principles”.

This is the fourteenth DFAT NGO Forum on Human Rights. I greatly value this ongoing engagement with civil society groups in Ireland. Input and feedback from our NGO partners is invaluable to my Department in helping to formulate our international human rights policy. I am also delighted to welcome many representatives from the business community. Your experience and perspectives will be central to our discussion.

The range and quality of speakers addressing us here today reflects the strong and growing international reputation of the Forum and a strong interest in the topic of Business and Human Rights. I would like to thank those who have kindly agreed to act as speakers, moderators and rapporteurs. The value of the Forum depends not just on the contributions from the speakers, but on the richness and openness of contributions from the floor. I wish you a stimulating and productive discussion here today.

Ireland and Human Rights

The changing global environment poses new challenges and threats to the universality of human rights. We see on a daily basis how human rights violations hamper development, create instability and lead to conflict. All of us – individual, business and State – have a responsibility to defend and protect human rights.

The promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world is a priority for the Government. As a small country, we promote our international human rights priorities through our membership of the United Nations and other international organisations and through our diplomatic network.

I am proud of Ireland’s strong reputation as an advocate of human rights on the international stage. Ireland’s election to the UN Human Rights Council for the 2013 – 2015 term was a recognition of our good standing in this area. Our membership of the Council is currently the primary platform for our international human rights advocacy.

During our term on the Council, we are working within the EU and with other like-minded states to pursue key human rights priorities. In September this year, at the 27th session of the Council, Irish leadership directly resulted in the adoption of two significant resolutions – on “the creation and maintenance in law and in practice of a safe and enabling environment for civil society” and “Preventable mortality and morbidity of children under 5 years of age as a human rights concern”.

I am proud to say that on 26th September 2014, I signed and ratified, on behalf of Ireland, the Third Optional Protocol on the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

This ratification, one of a range of Government initiatives to strengthen children’s rights, will provide Irish children with a route to a United Nations Committee, which can hear complaints in relation to violations of their rights where all available domestic remedies have been exhausted.

Business and Human Rights

The purpose of our Forum today is to discuss Business and Human Rights.

40% of the 100 largest economic entities in the world are not States, but corporations. Across business sectors, companies operate in an increasingly globalized environment and directly shape the daily lives and opportunities of people around the world. We must therefore pay attention to the power of corporations to impact on broader social issues. The size and influence of many business enterprises carries responsibilities for their role in society, including for the human rights impact of their activities.

We recognise that business can be a powerful driver for positive change through its ability to generate economic growth and to create jobs. Ireland has faced enormous challenges in recent years, following the 2008 property crash and the related financial crisis, which devastated our economy. However, Ireland is now well on its way to economic recovery. Growth of 4.7 per cent is forecast for 2014, the highest growth rate in many years.

Many factors have contributed to Ireland’s economic recovery, but the performance of our exporting industries – both indigenous and foreign owned multinationals – has been the major driver of economic growth. Export levels are at an all-time high.

Ireland has a pro-business environment; we are ranked as the Best Country in the World for Business. We are proud of our pro business environment and we are proud of the role that our enterprise sector has played in our economic recovery.

The challenge now is to harmonize economic growth with the protection of human rights. Many companies recognise the moral imperative to respect human rights and it is the role of the State to assist Irish companies in meeting human rights standards in today’s fiercely competitive business environment.

UN Guiding Principles

The UN has sought to clarify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability for human rights. In 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. The Principles were designed by the former Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, Harvard Professor John Ruggie. The “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework presented represents a cooperative effort between business, governments, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations.

These principles are an important first step. They create a practical framework, whereby governments have the principal duty to protect rights, companies have a responsibility to respect rights, and both governments and companies must work to provide a remedy when violations occur.

The Guiding Principles stress that the foundations of duties for preventing and redressing business-related human rights abuses lie in fundamental, legally binding human rights standards to which all States have already committed. The Principles are thus designed to enhance current international legal obligations and standards. They do not create new obligations.

Both the United Nations and the European Union have called on all States to develop ‘National Plans’ as part of the State responsibility to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Ireland is responding to this call.

National Plan on Business and Human Rights

Earlier this year, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published a National Plan on Corporate Social Responsibility. This focused on the interaction of the business sector with local communities in the domestic environment. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I welcome this plan.

In June 2014, the Government decided that Ireland would develop a national plan to support implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to provide Irish companies with guidance on how to ensure respect for international human rights principles in their activities. This National Plan will build on the achievements of Ireland’s National Plan on Corporate Social Responsibility.

The human rights impact of their activities is becoming a key performance indicator for corporations globally. It is therefore important for Ireland’s standing internationally and the reputation of Irish companies that we signal our commitment to placing human rights firmly on the business agenda. The purpose of the national plan is to identify best practices to develop sophisticated responses to the complex global challenges and opportunities that business and human rights presents.

Forum

Today’s Forum is the first step in the process of the creation of Ireland’s national plan, which is being led by my Department. We intend to develop a plan based on a consultation process than is open and transparent and that will engage business, civil society and State actors.

I am delighted that today’s speakers and delegates represent diverse backgrounds spanning business, NGOs, the UN, trade unions and academia. We hope to facilitate knowledge-sharing and debate between the different sectors represented and to promote greater transparency and understanding of how different groups have engaged with business and human rights issues. Today, I invite you all to set out your views on business and human rights, to share your experience and to plan the next steps.

Your perspectives and guidance are essential as we go forward.

Human Rights and Development

In the context of international development, Human Rights are a central priority within our new policy; “One World, One Future”. The policy commits to ensuring that human rights principles and standards are promoted, protected and integrated in all of our development efforts. Importantly, the aid programme enables Ireland to engage directly with Governments on a range of human rights issues, usually in close cooperation with other donor partners.

In addressing human rights concerns, our priority is to pursue them in the most effective way and to take advantage of the most appropriate opportunities to make our case, privately or publicly, bilaterally or multilaterally, as best fits the situation.

We are committed to ensuring that Irish businesses engaging abroad have access to relevant, informative principles on engaging in complex and sometimes challenging human rights environments. We will also work through existing initiatives such as the Africa Ireland Economic Forum, held just last week, to explore and develop responses to the challenges faced by Irish companies working internationally, helping them to conform with international guidelines and initiatives which promote ethical business practices, including the UN Guiding Principles.

To conclude,

One of the most valuable assets a business or indeed a country has, is its reputation. Ireland has been working extremely hard to restore its reputation in the aftermath of the economic crisis. By working together with business, civil society and all stakeholders to ensure that Ireland upholds the global standards outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, I believe that Ireland and Irish businesses will enhance that hard won reputation even further.

The challenges and opportunities surrounding business and human rights demand a systematic approach and sustained engagement by the State, civil society and business. The interaction between business and human rights can become a nexus from which we draw strength in both corporate performance and human rights. Ireland has the opportunity to become a leader in this area and I look forward to addressing this challenge with both NGOs and business actors. Given the calibre of panellists and attendees today, we expect a lively and fruitful debate.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

 

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