Two new European Union reports on business and human rights

Recent reports from two separate European Union bodies highlight the need for continuing efforts to advance the business and human rights agenda. The general thrust of both documents is that despite the commitments that have been made by States, considerably more needs to be done if business respect for human rights and access to remedy is to be ensured.

The first report is a study by the European Parliament’s Director-General for External Policies, entitled Implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The study focuses on the development of national action plans, finding that:

Much progress has already been achieved, with relevant key international standards like OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises becoming aligned with the UNGPs, new tools being developed to provide guidance to governments and stakeholders and a basis being set for constructive discussion. This led to increased awareness and better understanding, building trust and engagement among various stakeholders. Yet, despite all efforts, business-related human rights abuse is still a serious problem. Further implementation of the UNGPs and related instruments is thus necessary, with special emphasis needed on access to remedy and justice for victims of business-related abuses. Less declaration and more real political will is needed, as states’ commitments to develop National Action Plans implementing the Guiding Principles have been far too slow to materialise.

Only twelve such action plans have been produced since the adoption of the Guiding Principles in 2011, with ten of those being from EU countries. Ireland is not among them, and falls into the list of countries where a national action plan is “in progress”. As I wrote six months ago, the Irish national action plan is now several years in progress.

The second document of note is an Opinion produced by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, entitled Improving access to remedy in the area of business and human rights at the EU level. The Opinion offers advice to the EU on how to improve access to various remedies, including both judicial and non-judicial. The report finds that:

Lowering barriers to access remedy would help victims of business-related human rights abuse to have their rights realised. Victims should, for instance, more easily be able to get assistance with how and where to bring a case, and should have a more level playing field with business to provide evidence. FRA’s findings from research in related areas suggest that more could be done to ensure effective access to remedy for business-related human rights abuse within the EU.

The “in progress” nature of Ireland’s national action plan on business and human rights is also noted in the Agency’s report. It also observes that all EU Member States, except Ireland, are parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child concerning the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. This Protocol is very relevant for the debate on corporate criminal accountability as it requires States to provide for the liability for corporate entities in their domestic legal systems (as I explore in a forthcoming book chapter). The Opinion provides a thorough assessment of how the EU can advance remedies based on criminal law, as well as the various other avenues that may be available. Both reports deserve the attention of EU lawmakers.

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