So here it is. Ireland has finally published it’s National Plan on Business and Human Rights. The document was launched this morning by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney at an event in Iveagh House in Dublin. An overview of the document was first provided by Martina Feeney of the Department’s Human Rights Unit, then it was launched by Minister Coveney, who followed up his remarks by taking some questions from the floor.
The National Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020 is a welcome but overdue step by the Irish Government. For the Minister, it “demonstrates in a clear, tangible way this Government’s commitment to promoting responsible business practice at home and overseas”. For others, it constitutes an important means of getting a clear picture of the extent of the Irish Government’s commitment to ensuring business respect for human rights.
The National Plan begins with the following mission statement:
To promote responsible business practices at home and overseas by all Irish business enterprises in line with Ireland’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights globally and to being one of the best countries in the world in which to do business.
An emphasis on promotion is thus evident from the outset. Connected with this, the document itself is not overly long or detailed, having been deliberately designed to be accessible, and to get “buy-in” from business. A significant culling of the “Working Outline” document that was presented in 2015 has taken place.
The National Plan is divided into three sections, the first of which describes the international context, in particular the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the consultation process leading to the adoption of the National Plan. The section section sets out the current legislative and regulatory framework in Ireland. It is not until the third section that the actions to be undertaken by the Government are addressed. This is the key part of the Plan as it sets out exactly the new commitments which the Government has set for itself, as well as time frames for their completion. There are two key commitments which stand out:
- Commission a study to conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework pertaining to business and human rights as it applies in ireland
- Establish a ‘Business and Human Rights implementation group’, which will consist of representatives from government, the business community and civil society, and will meet twice a year to review the implementation of the National Plan over the first three years
The other half dozen commitments relate to the convening of a forum in two years time to discuss progress, putting business and human rights on the agenda of a number of governmental committees and ensuring coherence between the National Plan and other plans and strategies relating to trade, corporate social responsibility, and women, peace and security. In and of themselves, these are valid commitments (although the Department has had several years since committing to developing a national action plan during which a comprehensive baseline assessment could have already been undertaken). On the whole, though, these are a limited and unambitious set of commitments from the Irish Government.
There is a sense of “business as usual” when one looks at the initial priorities that have been set for the Business and Human Rights implementation group. The emphasis is on developing practical advice for companies, raising awareness of human rights, encouraging and supporting due diligence, encouraging engagement with human rights standards and processes, sharing best practice etc. Aside from a requirement that a review be conducted by the Group concerning access to remedy for overseas victims of abuses by Irish companies, the approach overall sees the State largely acting as an advisory service for business. There is nothing wrong with that per se – in fact the UN Guiding Principles expect States to make companies aware of their human rights responsibilities – but in the absence of any legal obligation, sanctions or incentives, companies might well choose to disregard such advice.
The National Plan on Business and Human Rights has consciously avoided what the Minister referred to as a “hard-hitting legalistic approach” to business and human rights. The document states that the Guiding Principles are “not legally binding”, a point which the Minister reiterated in his comments, although the Plan does acknowledge that the Guiding Principles “elaborate on the implications of existing standards and practices for States and business enterprises and include points covered in international and domestic law”. With regard to the State duty to protect, this is based on existing international human rights law, but there is no suggestion of introducing any binding human rights obligations for Irish companies, or to insisting on human rights compliance in the context of State support for the private sector. No reference is made to the ongoing process at the United Nations to develop a binding international treaty on business and human rights.
The National Plan seems to favour a voluntary approach to business responsibility for human rights, as had been recommended in the various submissions made by Irish business representative organisations during the consultation process. Although there is no reference to a voluntary approach in the plan itself, perhaps in recognition of its limitations, the Minister expressed his clear support for this, and to emphasizing the business case for human rights.
The National Plan makes no mention of the omnipresent issue of corporate tax avoidance, despite the clear connections between abusive tax practices by business, often facilitated by States, and human rights. The Minister acknowledged the absence, but said it was because the UN Guiding Principles do not address tax avoidance. He did accept, however, when I put it to him that the Guiding Principles’ corporate responsibility to respect human rights requires that companies not undermine a State’s ability to meet its human rights obligations. Various UN bodies and experts have relied on the Guiding Principles to address corporate tax avoidance and the role of States in the practice.
Beyond the content of the National Plan, I was struck by a somewhat hesitant approach to promoting the National Plan itself. Despite the document being being launched by the Minister, before an audience of invited guests from business, civil society and the diplomatic corps, there was a notable lack of publicity surrounding both the event and the coming into existence of the National Plan. Although the Department issued a few tweets announcing the launch of the document, no press release seems to have been issued and there was no obvious presence of journalists at this morning’s launch. Coupled with the considerable delay in the National Plan’s publication, it makes it hard to shake the feeling that business and human rights is not high on the list of priorities of the current Irish Government.
The National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020 is available here: https://www.dfa.ie/media/dfa/alldfawebsitemedia/National-Plan-on-Business-and-Human-Rights-2017-2020.pdf.