Guest Post: The Working Outline of Ireland’s National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights: a curate’s egg?

I am very pleased to post this contribution by Hannah Grene, an independent researcher on human rights and development, who has previously worked with Trócaire on their business and human rights policy position paper (available here).

A nineteenth century British cartoon shows a junior clergyman eating breakfast at his bishop’s house. His egg is bad but, not wishing to offend his superior, the curate denies it, saying that ‘parts of it are excellent’.

Like the curate’s egg, the Working Outline of a National Action Plan for Ireland on business and human rights is good in parts, but it would be unfair to draw the analogy further. The mix between good and bad in the lengthy document stems from a number of sources. Firstly, while other National Action Plans internationally have been accused of merely re-stating the actions already being undertaken in their country, Ireland, despite its excellent record on human rights, has engaged very little to date with business and human rights. As a result, many of the actions concern setting up the structures to examine business and human rights in more detail – and time will tell whether these will produce any meaningful results. Secondly, the National Action Plan is clearly trying to manage the difficult task of fulfilling Ireland’s human rights obligations while also convincing business to come on board. Thus, we have an introduction which reiterates the Government’s commitment to ‘making Ireland one of the best countries in the world to do business’ while Ireland’s reputation in the promotion and protection of human rights is relegated to Section 2.

Of the 50 plus action points, a handful are clearly to be welcomed, a large number may produce positive results, if implemented correctly, and an even greater number will require strengthening in the final draft if the Plan is to fulfil its potential. I have highlighted one measure in each of these categories below.

In a previous post for this blog, I highlighted the weak implementation of Ireland’s legal obligations with regard to the bribery of foreign officials, and it is encouraging to see that there are four detailed action points on this (Action Points 9-12), each with specific actions for public servants, Enterprise Ireland, Irish companies and ‘relevant stakeholders’. A commitment elsewhere to ask Embassy staff to help advise Irish companies on business and human rights questions is also welcome.

In the ‘potential positives category’, an interesting one is the commitment to conduct a baseline assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework pertaining to business and human rights. (Action Point 8). Logically, it would have been even better had this been done in advance of drafting the National Action Plan, and it is worrying that no timeline has been given for its completion, but it will be one to watch. Also interesting is the beginnings of an attempt to tackle the big topic of human rights due diligence – what is achieved will depend on the composition of the Implementation Group which is to consider it, but most importantly, the political will to make it mandatory in appropriate forms.

Finally, what could be done to strengthen the National Action Plan as it stands? There are a number of things – the action points on Irish businesses in conflict affected areas are alarmingly vague (Action Points 37 & 38), and the transposition of EU directives on non-financial reporting and public procurement (Action Points 14 and 24) are listed as simple action points without reference to steps which could be taken in transposition to strengthen these measures. But to return to another point discussed in my previous post, it is disappointing to see that the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises is not given more consideration in the draft National Action Plan. It is also somewhat puzzling – it refers to ‘faciliating mediation…following the publication of national procedures to give effect to the Guidelines’, implying that new procedures are to be published, although new procedures were in fact published in February 2015. But the real stumbling block to any meaningful action by the NCP is its situation as a small part of the role of the Bilateral Trade Unit with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Without a measure of independence, the NCP can never be an effective mechanism – and alternative mechanisms for access to remedy for victims of human rights abuses by businesses are few and far between.

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