Amnesty International’s growing push on business and human rights

Amnesty International has long been an advocate for corporate accountability and for the protection of human rights in the context of global business. The organisation has recently taken a strong public stance on two particular issues of relevance: the need for a binding instrument on business and human rights, and the necessity of tackling tax abuse, including corporate tax avoidance. Both of these are reflected in the submission made by Amnesty’s Irish Section to the consultation by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the development of a national plan on business and human rights. Having recently joined the National Board of Amnesty in Ireland, I am pleased to see the engagement on this topic and the strong positions taken on these key issues.

Amnesty’s submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs starts by observing that despite the potential for “significant harm” by business activities, there are “few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent corporate human rights abuses or to hold companies to account”. It calls for a priority focus in Ireland’s national plan on corporate legal accountability for abuses committed abroad, access to state-based remedies for victims, legal protection for vulnerable groups and mandatory transparency and reporting with regard to corprate human right risk and impact assessment. The submission also made the valid point that the national plan should not “overstate the business case”:

the business case for respecting human rights is unclear. It is evident that often the positive is true, that abusing human rights can be very profitable for companies. Linking human rights with successful business also risks undermining the moral argument that businesses are a part of wider society, and should respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They should not be allowed to get away with abusing human rights even when this is profitable. It also underplays the State’s right and duty to impose controls on the activities of businesses to prevent and/or redress human rights abuses.

Amnesty Ireland’s submission also addresses the ongoing developments regarding a new international instrument on business and human rights. There has been quite a bit of debate on this to date, and Ireland has thus far not been supportive of the initiative, having voted against the relevant UN Human Rights Council resolution. Amnesty notes that “little has changed” since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles and although the organisation does not consider that the Guiding Principles abandoned, it takes the view that a treaty would enable States to fulfil their obligation to protect persons from “corporate abuse and negligence”. As Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International put it:

A treaty could clearly set out what the state duty to protect means in the context of business operations, including with regard to parent and controlling companies of multinational groups active in more than one country. It would help to standardise how states relate to business.

In the context of Ireland’s national action plan on business and human rights, Amnesty urges Ireland to support “the principle and object of a new treaty” and to commit to participating in its development with a “positive and open mind”.

Amnesty’s submission also notes the growing attention being paid to the “interrelatedness” between human rights and tax policy and recommended that this be taken into consideration in the preparation of the national plan, and that appropriate measures be considered. Focusing on tax abuse is somewhat new territory for the organisation. Audrey Gaughran, the organisation’s Director of Global Issues and Research, has explained elsewhere that:

To date, Amnesty International has focused primarily on state failures to respect and protect ESC rights, and on discrimination in access to key goods or services, such as education. Until now, we have not focused our energies on studying how states access and use resources to meet needs and obligations for all.

She considers that human rights activists need to become involved in investigative work that makes the connections between tax abuse and human rights impacts, and to be part of the efforts aimed at finding a solution.

Amnesty Ireland’s submission is one of 25 received by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, according to figures mentioned in the Dáil recently. As to the national plan itself, Minister Charlie Flanagan explained that this will be designed “to help Government departments, State agencies, Irish companies, Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) operating in Ireland and Irish enterprises operating abroad adhere to and promote the UNGPs”. In response to a previous question regarding an Irish company active in Western Sahara, he stated that the national plan on business and human rights will: (i) to set out the current state of play in relation to actions which can be deemed to already assist in the implementation of the UNGPs; and (ii) to set out actions which can be taken over a 2/3 year period in order to further implement the UNGPs.

There are no indications to date of when, or even if, a draft national action plan will be published, but given the considerable attention given to the process by Amnesty International and others, one hopes that this engagement will prove fruitful. The full Amnesty submission is available here.

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