For several years now, the Irish government has been promising to produce a national action plan on business and human rights. It seems that such a plan is imminent for 2016, given that a ‘Working Outline’ of the national plan was published late last year – on international human rights day, 10 December 2015, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan quietly announced the publication of the ‘Working Outline’, describing it as the next step in Ireland’s efforts at “placing human rights firmly on the business agenda”. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held a consultation on this document in January of this year and received a number of written submissions in response. The final national action plan, however, has yet to be produced.
Ireland has reluctantly engaged with the business and human rights agenda since the development of the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. Despite the occasionally grandiose rhetoric, the engagement to date reveals that ensuring business respect for human rights has not been a priority of much significance for the Irish Government. The following timeline traces the path to Ireland’s yet-to-be published national action plan on business and human rights:
April 2005 The UN Commission on Human Rights requests the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative to the Secretary-General on business and human rights.
July 2005 Professor John Ruggie is appointed to the role and begins a multi-year mandate of research, engagement and consultation aimed at addressing the human rights concerns arising from business activities.
June 2008 Special-Representative Ruggie puts forward the ‘Respect, Protect and Remedy’ Framework on business
and human rights, which is unanimously welcomed by the members of the UN Human Rights Council
June 2011 The United Nations Human Rights Council endorse the UN Framework and Guiding Principles on business and human rights prepared by Special-Representative Ruggie
October 2011 The European Commissions calls on member states of the European Union to develop national action plans for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights
March 2013 In response to a Dáil question, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore acknowledges the endorsement by the Human Rights Council of the UN Guiding Principles and explains that consideration was being given on “how to address” these.
May 2013 Irish Aid’s Aid policy document One World, One Future states without elaboration that Ireland’s actions in this context are to be “guided by” the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights
October 2013 Minister Gilmore is asked if Ireland are preparing a national action plan and replies that “Consideration is being given as to how to address the Guiding Principles and how best to go about formulating our national action plan for their implementation”.
November 2013 On foot of a submission from the Irish Centre for Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee asks the Irish Government to provide it with information “on how the Government addresses concerns regarding the activities of private businesses based in the State party that may lead to violations of the Covenant outside the territory of the State party”.
March 2014 The Irish Government responds to the Human Rights Committee by stating that Ireland was still considering how best to address the implementation of a national action plan on business and human rights and that it planned on “learning from other countries that have undertaken similar processes”.
June 2014 At a session of the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland states that it is “strongly committed to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is currently developing its approach on how best to formulate a National Plan to implement them”. The Irish delegation also votes against a resolution seeking to advance discussion on a binding business and human rights treaty.
July 2014 In response to questioning by the Human Rights Committee in Geneva on the activities of Irish businesses overseas, the Irish government responds that a national plan was being developed “in an attempt to prevent human rights abuses by Irish companies operating abroad”.
November 2014 The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade dedicates its annual NGO Human Rights Forum to the theme: ‘Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles’. Minister Flanagan states that it is “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”.
December 2014 The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade calls for submissions for its consultation on the national action plan on business and human rights. Minister Flanagan puts its in the Dáil that “the development of a national plan is a valuable opportunity to situate Ireland as a progressive leader on the issue of business and human rights”.
March 2015 Numerous submissions on the national action plan are made to the Department from a variety of interested parties, including from IBEC, Dóchas, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Business in the Community, Christian Aid, Trócaire, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, the Irish Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights.
October 2015 In a debate on corporation tax, poverty and human rights, Irish parliamentarians criticise the delay in the development of Ireland’s national action plan on business and human rights.
December 2015 Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, announces the publication of the ‘Working Outline’ of a national action plan on business and human rights
January 2016 The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade holds a consultation on the ‘Working Outline’ of a national plan and solicits written submissions. Various NGOs and interested parties submit their observations on the ‘Working Outline’, with human rights civil society expressing some disappointment. In the submission from the Irish Centre for Human Rights, for example, concern is raised at the overemphasis on promotional activities, rather than the pursuit of a robust legislative framework on business and human rights.
February 2016 The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child takes Ireland to task for the failure of its ‘Working Outline’ to contain any firm commitment to children’s rights.
June 2016 The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade responds to a parliamentary question put by Deputy Seán Crowe on the status of the national action plan, by stating that the input received through consultations and submissions “is being reviewed in consultation with Government Departments and with a view to producing a first draft of the National Plan”.
July 2016 In response to another parliamentary question, this time from Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, the Minister provides a similar answer, but also adds that Ireland has engaged with the issue of business and human rights at both the EU and UN level.
October 2016 The Minister for Foreign Affairs Trade, Charlie Flanagan, tells the Dáil that his department is reviewing submissions received “with a view to producing a National Plan within the first quarter of 2017“.
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It is now over five years since the UN Guiding Principles were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council and since EU member States were asked by the European Commission to develop national action plans. Ireland has spent several years “considering” how to implement the Guiding Principles, and at least two years developing its own national action plan. In the meantime, a number of other states have published national plans and the United Kingdom has produced a second version of its national action plan. Since 2011, there has not been any shortage of serious human rights issues in which Irish business has been implicated, including human trafficking and exploitation in Ireland’s fishing industry, the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the selling of software by Irish companies to Syria and, most recently, large-scale tax avoidance by multinational companies operating in Ireland.
National action plans to implement the UN Guiding Principles are certainly not a silver bullet that will prevent companies from negatively impacting on human rights, but at the very least they offer a means of gauging a State’s commitment to this issue. Advocates of a global business and human rights treaty have been warned that efforts to develop a binding instrument could derail existing initiatives aimed at implementing the UN Guiding Principles. Ireland’s slow performance to date with regard to its national action plan provides a underwhelming example of the potential of such undertakings for ensuring business respect for human rights.