While dragging its heels on the implementation of Ireland’s National Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020, the Irish Government has also poured cold water on the calls for it to engage more meaningfully in the current United Nations process on the elaboration of a business and human rights treaty. In a lengthy written statement delivered in the Dáil this week, in response to a question from Seán Crowe TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney set out the Irish position as follows:
A number of developing countries, led by Ecuador and South Africa, have proposed the elaboration of an internationally legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises and in this regard an Inter-Governmental Working Group was established in 2014 on foot of a resolution of the Human Rights Council.
The next session of the Inter-Governmental Working Group is scheduled to take place in Geneva from 15-19 October. Ireland and our EU partners are looking at how we might actively and constructively engage in the session notwithstanding some serious concerns about the way in which the work of the Group has been conducted to date. In the first instance, we agree with the view expressed by countries across all regions on the need to revert to the Human Rights Council for a new resolution following the completion of three sessions of the Inter-Governmental Working Group. Furthermore, the Programme of Work for any future sessions, including possible speakers, should be negotiated in coordination with regional and other groups. The nomination of the Chairperson and the conduct of proceedings should be in accordance with the principles set out in the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly, including impartiality and respect for the rights of minorities as well as majorities. We also think it is essential that the participation of all stakeholders including civil society, trade unions and business should be facilitated.
We have noted with interest the zero draft of a legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises circulated in July by the Ecuadorean Permanent Representative in Geneva. Ireland is open to looking at options for progress on a legally binding Treaty, which we believe should treat all economic operators in a non-discriminatory manner and should therefore cover companies engaged in purely domestic operations as well as transnational corporations.
We would wish to see essential human rights principles reflected in any possible instrument, which should reaffirm the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights and stress the primary responsibility of States under existing human rights obligations to protect against human rights violations.
Ultimately, if it is to achieve its objectives, any legally binding instrument should enjoy broad support among UN Member States to ensure its effectiveness as well as international coherence in the framework of business and human rights. We would like to see any new initiative build on, rather than duplicate, existing measures such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. Above all we believe that it should be rooted in the UN Guiding Principles. In this regard, we are of the view that the appropriate place for the discussion of any new initiatives is the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which was established in 2011 by the Human Rights Council to serve as a global platform to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles.
The stated concerns relate to the process itself – the mandate of the inter-governmental working group, any future programme of work, the nomination of the chair, and the participation of stakeholders – as well as the content of the proposed instrument – that it should include all business, including both domestic and transnational, as well as reflecting core human rights principles. Surely deeper involvement in the process rather that criticism from the sidelines would help to remedy some of these perceived shortcomings.
Minister Coveney also referred to existing soft law instruments which the instrument should build on rather than duplication – which the proposed treaty surely would – as well that it be “rooted” in the UN Guiding Principles – which the zero draft certainly is.
Most tellingly, the Minister expressed a preference that the issue be moved to the annual UN Forum on business and human rights – no doubt an important platform for discussion of all things business and human rights, but not the place for States to work together on developing new instruments of international law. The subtext seems to be that Ireland, along with the rest of the European Union, is not keen to go down the route of binding obligations for States and business when it comes to protecting and respecting human rights.