Latest Ministerial update on Ireland’s (lack of) progress on National Action Plan on business and human rights

Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has provided the Dáil with an update on the delays in the implementation of Ireland’s National Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020. He was responding to questions raised by Seán Crowe TD who has expressed deep concerns about the Government “dragging its feet” with implementing the Plan given that several deadlines have now been missed. Minister Coveney offered the following details and explanations concerning the delays associated with the planned baseline assessment and the establishment of an implementation group:

The national plan on business and human rights which was launched by me last November sets out a number of key commitments to ensure policy coherence across government. The first is to commission a study to conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework pertaining to business and human rights as it currently applies in Ireland. Work on the study is under way and expected to be completed by the end of October. We have also been pressing ahead with plans to establish a business and human rights implementation group which will oversee delivery of the plan. I suspect the frustration of the Deputy centres on the group not yet being up and running, a frustration, to be honest, I share. I had a chairperson in mind for the particular job who I believed would be really good, but for a series of reasons, that person cannot now do it. We have had to look elsewhere for the appropriate team of people to be able to do this work properly and give the leadership needed to the implementation group. We are now making progress in that regard. Given its pivotal role, it is critical that the composition of the group have the appropriate mix of experience. Some unavoidable delays have been experienced in securing the availability of suitably qualified persons to serve on it. Nevertheless, I expect to be in a position to make an announcement in the near future.

The Minister spoke of the as yet uncompleted baseline assessment serving the purpose of assisting the not yet established implementation group in the limited goal of “building awareness” of the need for human rights due diligence:

It is intended that the completed baseline study will guide the work of the implementation group in delivering on the plan’s other key commitments which range across the three pillars of the UN guiding principles: the State’s duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and access to a remedy. The actions to be undertaken include building awareness among State-owned and other companies and NGOs of the need to exercise effective due diligence on human rights issues, particularly where there is a risk of adverse human rights impacts. Particular attention has been given to ensuring coherence with the second national plan on corporate social responsibility which is overseen by my colleague the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys. State-owned and controlled companies were included in the public consultation process leading up to the national plan which encouraged awareness of effective human rights due diligence.

Seán Crowe also raised the issue of human rights due diligence by State-owned or controlled companies, given particular concerns associated with coal being imported by the ESB:

Is the Minister aware that the ESB is importing millions of tonnes of coal from Colombia, specifically from the infamous Cerrejón mine? Has he been made aware that the coal is coming from mines which are notorious for destroying the environment, displacing communities and attacking local community activists? The Government is the main shareholder in the ESB. Has the Minister’s Department had discussions with the ESB on the human rights due diligence that should follow, detailing the notorious abuses in the Colombian mines from where it sources coal?

Although not aware of the issues surrounding the ESB’s importation of coal from Colombia – which was reported in the Times last month and raised in the Dáil in July – Minister Coveney explained that there was a long-term plan to move away from reliance on coal, and in relation to the business and human rights aspects, he stated:

The purpose in having an implementation group is to try to set guidelines and ensure they will be implemented and followed in order that companies, whether they are State or private, in their sourcing policies will be conscious of some of their broader corporate responsibilities in the sourcing lines they support.

These continuing delays are further evidence of the lack of commitment on the part of this Government to meaningfully advancing the responsibility of business in Ireland to respect human rights throughout their operations. The eventual adoption of the National Plan on Business and Human Rights last year has given the illusion of progress at the state level, but has had little discernible impact on the activities of Irish companies, as the example of the ESB seems to show.

The legal obligation of large Irish companies to begin reporting on their environmental, social and human rights impacts under the Non-Financial Reporting Regulations 2017 – a requirement that has come about independently of the national action plan – should allow for a greater understanding of how or even if Irish companies are seeking to act with due diligence when it comes to their potential human rights impacts. In the absence of any Governmental direction, mandatory or otherwise, expectations are low that Irish business are seeking to comply with the UN Guiding Principles on their own initiative.

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