The Irish government remains lukewarm on the proposed business and human rights treaty but is facing calls from some of Ireland’s leading human rights organisations to support and contribute to the development of this instrument-in-progress at the United Nations.
In response to a series of questions in the Dáil this month, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney, reiterated how the Irish government “will continue to work with our EU partners to look at how we might actively and constructively engage in the negotiation process, notwithstanding our serious concerns about the way in which the work of the Group has been conducted to date”.
The Department is reviewing whether the latest draft of the treaty addresses Ireland’s previously expressed concerns on the treaty. According to Minister Coveney’s comments on September 6th, such concerns continue to relate to the focus of the treaty on transnational corporations and how it relates to the United National Guiding Principles on business and human rights:
While we are open to looking at options for progress on a legally binding treaty, we believe that all economic operators, whether transnational or purely domestic, should be treated in a non-discriminatory manner. We would also 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. On this point, I would note that of the 22 countries which to date have adopted National Plans on Business and Human Rights, 16, including Ireland, are EU Member States. 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 on Business and Human Rights. In this regard, we are of the view that the UN Working Party on Business and Human Rights and the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights provide appropriate fora for consideration of any new initiatives.
Minister Coveney repeated these views following questions from a number of TDs on 24 September, but also made some more positive comments and added some important details on Ireland’s participation in the work of the intergovernmental working group on the treaty:
Ireland is among those countries which favours participation in the annual sessions of the Inter-Governmental Working Group. We also believe that all stakeholders, including civil society, trade unions and business, should be enabled to participate and are concerned by reports that they may be excluded from the next session which will take place in October in Geneva. Ecuador has circulated a revised draft treaty in advance of this meeting which contains some positive developments compared to an earlier version presented in 2018. At this stage it is foreseen that the EU will attend the forthcoming session and, while welcoming the improvements in the draft, will signal that it is not in a position to enter into detailed negotiations pending completion of a comprehensive analysis. It is likely however that the EU will avail of the opportunity to pose a number of questions on issues of concern.
While certainly a step in the right direction, such participation falls short of what Irish civil society is currently asking of the Irish government in relation to the treaty process. In a joint document submitted to the United Nations Working Group on business and human rights in September by Trócaire, the Trinity Centre for Social Innovation, Christian Aid, Comhlámh, Front Line Defenders, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Action Aid, these organisation call on Ireland to
- Support and contribute to the development of a UN binding treaty on business and human rights to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises, which will complement the UNGPs;
- Champion a Treaty that will include provisions to ensure the prevention of human rights violations through human rights and environmental due diligence, access to justice, the primacy of human rights over trade and investment agreements, protection of human rights defenders, inclusion of a gender perspective and strong enforcement mechanisms
Various other recommendations relating to tax avoidance, human rights and environmental due diligence and the rights of women are also made in this significant document – one of the first joint efforts by Irish civil society organisations in the area of business and human rights. It is welcome development to see greater civil society and political engagement in Ireland with the treaty process, in line with Trócaire’s current campaign, and it may have the effect of pushing the Irish government even further in the right direction.