The abuse of human rights, including displacement of indigenous peoples, and the environmental damage associated with coal imported to Ireland from Colombia has been highlighted recently by civil society organisations and covered in the Irish media. Most of the coal used at the Money Point Power Station in Co. Clare comes from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia, which is one of the largest in the world, and a source of health and environmental concerns on the part of the local population. The coal is imported by an Irish-based company CMC Coal Marketing, which has supplied the ESB for a number of years. Questions have been raised directly with the ESB by the the Oireachtas environment committee, but both companies have been largely dismissive.
On Wednesday, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, gave a lengthy response in the Dáil to a question posed by Maureen O’Sullivan TD on the Department’s efforts to ensure that Irish business respect human rights in this context. Here is his response:
I am aware of the initiative to which the Deputy refers, and also about concerns raised by non-governmental organisations regarding mining activities in Colombia. I remain concerned at reports of these activities having a negative impact on local populations, and also on the environment.
The EU Delegation in Bogotá monitors this issue closely and has met with relevant stakeholders, including representatives of affected local communities and other civil society and environmental organisations.
Ireland has just opened its first resident Embassy in Colombia, with Ambassador Alison Milton having presented her credentials last week. This significant step demonstrates this Government’s commitment to developing Ireland’s relationship with Colombia and in particular our commitment to supporting Colombia’s transition to a peaceful post-conflict society, including the vindication and protection of human and social rights. It will greatly enhance our ability to engage on issues on the ground and monitor issues such as the impact of mining activities on local communities.
As the Deputy will be aware, historic strides have been made in Colombia in recent years in the transition to a post-conflict society, and Ireland has been a committed supporter of this process. It is clear that significant challenges remain, such as those highlighted by the initiative mentioned by the Deputy, but Ireland remains committed to supporting the full implementation of the Peace Agreement, and working with all sectors in Colombia to ensure a more peaceful, stable and prosperous future for the Colombian people.
The relationship between business and human rights is fundamental to securing a society that works for all citizens, and this is a priority for me and my Department. In November 2017, my Department launched the National Plan on Business and Human Rights2017 -2020 to give effect to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The aim of the Plan 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. The Plan is directed at Government and State agencies, Irish companies operating at home and overseas, and multinational enterprises operating in Ireland.
Since the launch of the Plan, my Department has established the Business and Human Rights Implementation Group, which will oversee the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles in the Irish context over the next three years. Its membership consists of representatives from civil society, the business community, Government and an independent Chairperson. The first meeting of the Implementation Group took place on 16 January 2019. The Implementation Group will be further divided into three sub-groups, which will be tasked with taking forward delivery of key action points under each of the three pillars of the UN Guiding Principles, i.e. the State duty to protect, corporate responsibility to respect and access to remedy.
Ireland is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world. Officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin, and at our new Embassy in Bogotá, will continue to engage on this issue with human rights defenders and civil society organisations active on the ground, and with our EU colleagues.
Just as the promise of the development of the Irish national action plan on business and human rights was put forward for a number of years as a response to questions regarding the potential involvement of Irish companies in human rights violations overseas, there is a risk that the establishment of the Business and Human Rights Implementation Group might be treated in the same way and viewed, incorrectly in my opinion, as the only avenue that might lead to Government action in a context such as that presented by the importation and burning of significant quantities of coal from the Cerrejón mine.