‘The Irish Abroad’ – how does Ireland ensure that Irish companies respect human rights when operating overseas?

One of the recurring issues that has come up on the blog has been the extent to which Ireland acts to ensure that Irish companies are not complicit in human rights violations when operating abroad (see here, here and here). How companies that are connected with such violations might be liable to litigation in Ireland will be considered at a forthcoming conference at NUI Galway organised by the Irish Centre for Human Rights. In advance of the conference, I intend to run a series of posts highlighting some current examples of where it is claimed that Irish companies are involved in rights violations overseas.

The situation in Western Sahara and the activities of an Irish oil company have previously been mentioned here, and last week in the Dáil, Maureen Sullivan raised the issue again with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan. He was asked to explain “the measures his Department has taken in advising Irish companies of the consequences of their activities in Western Sahara while under Moroccan occupation, in view of his commitment to the self determination of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara”. Minister Flanagan responded as follows:

Ireland has consistently supported the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Ireland has not taken a position on the future status of the territory, so long as that status is decided in a genuine exercise of self-determination.

At present, Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory. Under international law, the economic resources of a non-self-governing territory may only be exploited for the benefit of the people of the territory, on their behalf or in consultation with their representatives. Any exploration and exploitation activities that proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of the principles of international law applicable to natural resource activities in non-self-governing territories.

I would expect that any Irish company operating abroad would have due regard to the principles of international law and the rights of the inhabitants of the territory in which it is operating. My Department has committed to develop a National Plan on Business and Human Rights, which will assist companies in advancing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011.

The National Plan is 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. Following the publication of the Working Outline of the National Plan on Business and Human Rights in late 2015, my Department engaged in an extensive consultation process with the aim of ensuring the broadest possible participation in the development of the Plan. Work on the Plan is nearing conclusion and I expect that it will be published within the next three months.

Ireland continues to engage in EU and UN discussions aimed at promoting the UN Guiding Principles on Businessand Human Rights. Most recently, Ireland, together with other EU Member States, reiterated our collective commitment to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles at the fifth UN Annual Forum on Business and Human rights in Geneva in November 2016.

No specific advice seems to have been offered to such Irish companies in this case, therefore, let alone any caution or threat of sanction for any potential complicity in breaches of international law. Aside from the specific example of doing business in illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine, when such questions have been put to the Department in recent years, the stock response has been that the national action plan on business and human rights will provide the necessary answers. The considerable delay in its preparation and publication suggests that ensuring business respect for human rights, including how ‘the Irish abroad’ conduct themselves, is not a priority for the Irish government. We will have to wait and see.

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