I was very pleased to have contributed the following article to the current issue of Focus magazine, published by Comhlámh, looking at Ireland’s recently published business and human rights plan.
That companies might harm human rights is nothing new. It is the unprecedented growth in corporate size, mobility and power over recent decades and the attendant demands for resources and returns that has lead to human rights being increasingly pushed aside.
States have often been willing partners in this. The World Cup in Qatar in 2022 is a case in point. According to Amnesty International, companies involved in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure for the competition have “subjected their workers to systematic labour abuse”. Hundreds of workers have already died, yet Qatar has dragged its heels in making the necessary labour reforms.
Against this backdrop, various United Nations human rights bodies have been working for several years on developing means of ensuring business respect for human rights – preparing the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, working towards a new international treaty, and questioning States on how they ensure that companies domiciled in their territory respect human rights throughout their operations.
When Ireland appeared before the Human Rights Committee in Geneva in 2014, it was asked to provide details on how it was implementing the UN Guiding Principles and “whether allegations of the complicity of Irish construction companies involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in alleged human rights violations were being investigated”. The Government’s response was that it had not received any information that Irish companies were complicit in such abuses, and that it was developing a national plan “in an attempt to prevent human rights abuses by Irish companies operating abroad”.
Over three years later, and the Irish Government has finally published it’s National Plan on Business and Human Rights. The document was launched by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney at a low-key event at Iveagh House this month. Its mission statement is:
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.
This emphasis is telling, as the National Plan indicates a clear preference for a soft promotional approach to business and human rights, rather than undertaking the introduction of any mandatory legal requirements in this area as other countries have done.
The new commitments being undertaken by the Government include commissioning a comprehensive assessment of the current legislative and regulatory framework in Ireland and establishing a ‘Business and Human Rights implementation group’ drawn from government departments, business and civil society which will provide practical advice to companies, encourage and support them to undertake human rights due diligence, and promote engagement with certain human rights processes.
The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which the National Plan is supposed to implement, require that States take “appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress” human rights abuses by business enterprises “through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication”. The only allusions to prevention and remedy in the National Plan are in relation to the comprehensive assessment and the seemingly overlapping pledge to review access to remedy for overseas victims of abuses by Irish companies. There is no clear commitment to take action on foot of these reviews.
The Irish Government has taken a superficial and light-touch approach to business and human rights, one that favours promotion and encouragement of voluntary undertakings by business, rather than deploying the legal tools at the State’s disposal for ensuring business respect for human rights. Many civil society recommendations have not been taken up, while the approach favoured by Irish business organisations is largely reflected in the National Plan.
The Minister explained of the need to get “buy-in” from business for this endeavour. This excessive deference to the private sector is disheartening for NGOs who contributed most to the Department’s consultations, in the hope of a robust and progressive national plan. It is also a reflection of the power differentials at play in this context.