A missed opportunity? Business and human rights in Ireland’s Foreign Policy review

Readers of the blog might recall that this time last year a number of NGOs made submissions to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to its review of Ireland’s foreign policy. Amnesty International, for example, asked the Department to make it “unambiguously clear that Ireland will not allow its economic interests to trump its responsibility to promote and protect human rights”. Other civil society organisations pushed for action on the development of a national plan to implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights.

While there have been some developments regarding a national implementation plan for the Guiding Principles since a year ago – a consultation process is now under way – the Foreign Policy review presented an ideal opportunity for the Department to affirm its commitment to human rights throughout foreign policy, so much which entails the promotion of trade and business. As Trócaire observed in its submission, “the foreign policy review needs to recognise the intrinsic links between these two areas through developing a human rights approach to our trade promotion work”. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

The Review, entitled The Global Island; Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World was published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in January 2015. In terms of any explicit reference to business and human rights, the Foreign Policy review states that:

Business is exerting an ever greater power and influence over the implementation of human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights adopted in 2011 create a framework in which governments have the principal duty to protect rights, companies have a responsibility to respect rights, and both must work to provide a remedy when violations occur. We will undertake a consultation process in 2015 to feed into a national plan on Business and Human Rights.

In his foreword, Minister Charlie Flanagan notes the “enhanced focus on trade and economic recovery” for the Department, but also how other issues such as development and human rights are a “central part of our foreign policy”. They are treated completely separately, however, in the Review, even though the document notes the need for a “coordinated approach” to address global challenges. Ensuring that companies to not have a negative impact on human rights is just one of those challenges. Although there are many references to how the Department promotes 'Supporting Irish Exporters'Irish trade and business interests, as the graphic on the right shows, there is no mention of how the Government makes it clear to Irish businesses that they are expected to respect human rights throughout their operations (as required by the Guiding Principles).

Despite the numerous individual submissions from various NGOs, and the emphasis of the Galway Platform on Human Rights in Irish Foreign Policy on business and human rights as a cross-cutting issue and potential priority area for the Irish Government, the outcome document is unfortunately disappointing. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of the reality that in practice the Department treats trade and business as separate and unrelated to the promotion and protection of human rights – such a view clearly exists within the Government, as the infamous Gulf trade mission showed. The outcome of the Review also raises questions regarding how meaningful the consultation with civil society is and to what extent policy can be influenced in this regard, given the pointed references to business and human rights in the various submissions, yet the mere passing mention in the Review. Perhaps we should give the Department the benefit of the doubt and await the national plan on business and human right itself. But one hopes that the consultation on the forthcoming national plan does not yield similarly weak results.

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