Guest post: Is a picture worth a thousand words? Analysing Ireland’s National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights

I’m very pleased to welcome this guest post from Hannah Grene, a consultant in the field of community development and human rights, who has previously contributed to the blog. You can read more about her work at www.barncat.ie

On page 19 of Ireland’s first National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, there is a photo of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, addressing a group of Irish and local business in Abu Dhabi on his 2016 Gulf states trade mission.

It is an interesting choice – are we being deliberately reminded of the 2014 Gulf states trade mission, about which Richard Bruton declared that ‘Trade missions are no place for human rights’? Perhaps we are being told that with the advent of the National Action Plan, Irish government ministers are now indeed raising the issue of migrant labour in the United Arab Emirates, where widespread human rights violations have been recorded, leading to workplace accidents, deaths and suicide. The caption gives us no clue, and so we must turn back to the text of the National Action Plan to get some sense of how serious the Irish government are about ensuring that businesses respect human rights.

Practically speaking, the published National Action Plan is a better document than the Working Outline that preceded it. The action points have been grouped, categorised and in some cases, given timeframes – a very significant step given the lengthy delays in getting to this point. Some of the action points have been made more precise – for example, a toolkit which was to cover the entire scope of business and human rights will now focus specifically on human rights due diligence – the practical part which businesses actually need to come to terms with. This toolkit is to be produced within 12 months.

However, as Shane has pointed out, the language both in and around the National Action Plan remains carefully voluntary. In the action points pertaining to the corporate duty to respect human rights, four out of the five action points begin with the word ‘Encourage’, as in this example:

Encourage companies and NGOs funded by the state to carry out human rights due diligence as appropriate to their size, the nature and context of operations and the severity of the risk of adverse human rights impacts.

The tone of the National Action Plan and the Minister’s comments while launching the Plan point to a particular policy viewpoint: with a little light encouragement from government, companies will begin to see that ‘respecting human rights is good for business’ as the Minister put it.

The unpalatable truth is that respecting human rights is not always good for business. In the United Arab Emirates, many businesses have made large profits by systematically abusing human rights, or choosing to ignore the fact that their business partners do so.

The long overdue National Action Plan is certainly a step in the right direction. The timeframes for some key action points provides metrics for accountability, and some of the actions – the baseline survey of the legal and regulatory framework, the toolkit on human rights due diligence – should provide some much needed clarity to Irish businesses as to what, exactly, respecting human rights entails. But without a move towards mandatory actions at some stage – for example, mandatory human rights due diligence for State owned or funded bodies – progress is likely to be excruciatingly slow.

 

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