I am very pleased to welcome this guest post from Michelle Carpenter, a business and human rights analyst with Verisk Maplecroft and chair of Amnesty International’s Bath Group. You can follow Michelle @_mcarpenter_
The launch of the Irish National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights could have come at a better time for the DFA. On the verge of near collapse merely two weeks ago, and working overtime to mitigate the negative impacts of Brexit, the government can be forgiven for their quiet launch of this long-awaited document.
Nonetheless, following years of anticipation, the National Action Plan has left many feeling deflated. Although our small nation has long been recognised as both a stalwart of human rights and a leading country in which to do business, the plan does not do justice to the outstanding international reputation that Ireland has gained in recent decades.
To start, the plan is too short; merely 13 pages when viewed as an online PDF. Compare this to the Danish National Action Plan, for example, and the lack of detail is clear. Development of a toolkit aside, what immediately stands out is the dearth of information on how the government intends to implement the actions it has committed to. How, for example, does the government plan to ‘encourage and support awareness of effective human rights due diligence by State-owned and controlled companies?’ And why is it that only companies and organisations owned or funded by the State are explicitly encouraged to carry out due diligence?
As Brexit opens the door for Ireland to become the only English-speaking country in the EU, the publication of the National Action Plan presented a key opportunity to position the country as a leader in the business and human rights space, particularly in relation to human rights due diligence. However, the plan is extremely light-touch on the subject, and makes no suggestion that mandatory due diligence will be coming down the line. By contrast, our mainland neighbours, France and the Netherlands, have already implemented legislation requiring companies to put the necessary measures in place to mitigate the risk of human rights violations. And although it does not specifically require due diligence, the UK Modern Slavery Act has been hailed as a significant step in not only the fight against modern slavery, but in changing cultures and behaviours within business. For the first time, companies that had never given human rights a second thought are now having to carefully consider their business model and the negative impacts it may have. Many Irish companies, it seems, are off the hook in this regard.
The Irish National Action Plan sets out no plans to require due diligence on the part of companies, referencing only the government’s support for EU and multilateral efforts on the issue. Express commitment to these is, of course, welcome, however the focus on the voluntary approach to business responsibility for human rights is at odds with wider trends within the EU and further afield.
Overall, the absence of the intention to implement robust due diligence requirements significantly weakens the National Action Plan. And it does this at a crucial time when the European investment landscape looks set to change dramatically. However, one cannot help but feel that this has been done intentionally. Ireland has an attractive corporate environment that draws in many multinationals wanting to take advantage of our low rate corporation tax and our highly skilled workforce. Placing administrative and legislative burdens on companies weakens our position as an appealing investment location, and has the potential to undermine our important FDI strategy. With the government under pressure to attract and retain investment, it seems a firm stance on business and human rights will have to wait.