Guest Post: A milestone in the development of a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights

Siobhan Curran, Trócaire, and Maha Abdallah, Al’Haq calling for Ireland to support a legally binding treaty and defend human rights defenders

I am delighted to welcome this guest post from Siobhan Curran, Policy and Advocacy Advisor on Human Rights and Democratic Space with Trócaire on the fourth session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises held in Geneva this month. You can follow Siobhan on twitter @SiobhanMCurran


Trócaire receives widespread reports of corporate human rights abuses in the communities in which we work. The actions of irresponsible business are resulting in the displacement of communities, pollution of land and the destruction of livelihoods. These actions impact disproportionately on women and indigenous communities. For this reason, we are campaigning for Ireland to support a legally binding treaty on business and human rights and we attended the fourth session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group (OEIGWG) on transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The session opened with a powerful statement by Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights:

The data on disappearances, unlawful killings and assassinations tells a horror story about the burden of fear, intimidation and violence associated with some business activities and borne at great personal cost by human rights defenders and other activists, including land rights and environmental defenders, and by affected communities…

This treaty drafting process is our opportunity to take a bold step forward for protection of human rights in the context of business activities, and, most importantly, for strengthened accountability and more effective remedy for those who are the victims of business-related activities.

This set the scene for substantive discussions on a draft treaty for the first time by UN member states.


The fourth session was a milestone in the elaboration of a binding treaty on business and human rights. This session in Geneva was the first time that member states inputted on the substantive content of the treaty. We now have constructive comments and positions from states on the issues of scope, jurisdiction, and the refinement of legislative language. Many states proclaimed their support for the process. There was widespread participation by member states in the session, with 94 states participating.

Civil society participation was strong with over 300 civil society organisations and trade unions represented. Human rights defenders spoke truth to power and argued strongly for their explicit inclusion in the Treaty. Feminists for a Binding Treaty were an impressive force, highlighting the gender blind nature of the draft treaty and offering insightful analysis for addressing this. The experiences of women in conflict situations were raised by several representatives, including Maha Abdallah of Al’Haq when she addressed the floor and stated that “corporate abuses experienced by women in conflict areas demonstrate the need to address both conflict and gender justice to prevent and redress corporate impunity.” Esteemed panellists advised the session with reminders of the transformational potential of this treaty. As stated by Professor Oliver De Schutter “We are here to change the rules of the game, globalisation as we know it is not set in stone”.

The conclusions and recommendations of the session were adopted! This paves the way for future refinements of this crucial treaty, further submissions and consultations, and the fifth OEIGWG in October 2019.

The EU – with or without you?

The EU represented the voice of EU member states at the session and the lack of constructive engagement was disappointing. While the EU did not block the process (as in previous years), the delegation made an intervention on the first day and were then silent until the last day, when they dissociated the EU from the conclusions and recommendations of the session. While other countries were intervening on the content of articles in the treaty, member states of the European Union were largely silent. Only France spoke independently as a member state.

Other voices from Europe were stronger. The European Parliament spoke of the importance of a binding treaty that would require multinational corporations to respect human rights across the world. The European Network of National Human Rights Institutions noted the insufficient progress on the part of European businesses in implementing human rights due diligence and the adverse impacts of businesses on human rights. They stated that a binding treaty could make a significant contribution to addressing current governance gaps.

Next steps

While some corporations continue to abuse human rights and show complete disregard for communities, human rights defenders and the environment, the development of a legally binding treaty to close this global accountability gap is crucial. It can be no coincidence that some of the strongest resistance to this treaty is coming from countries where the headquarters of large transnational corporations are based. For the sake of global justice we need to pressure Ireland and the EU to support a legally binding treaty and to engage in good faith in the treaty process. The struggle of land and environmental human rights defenders must not be in vain.

More on the Trócaire campaign to “Defend the Defenders” at

Full details of the session can be found at:

An analysis of the draft treaty by CIDSE (alliance of which Trócaire is a member) can be accessed at


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