Trócaire activists call for Ireland and the EU to support the ground-breaking UN Treaty to stop corporate human rights abuses

I am delighted to have this guest post by Siobhan Curran, Policy and Advocacy Advisor on Human Rights and Democratic Space with Trócaire, on her return from the recent discussions in Geneva on a potential treaty on business and human rights. You can follow her @SiobhanMCurran.

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Throughout 2019 Trócaire has campaigned for the rights of human rights defenders who are being adversely affected by corporate activities across the world. The campaign has told the stories of Rosalina Dominguez, who continues to face attacks and threats in Honduras for her role in challenging corporations, and the Tolupanes community, who tragically mourned the murder of Salomóm Matute and his son Juan Samael Matute in April 2019 for trying to stop corporations from logging on their land. It also celebrated the release from prison of Abelino Chub Caal, jailed for two years for defending his community from corporations in pursuit of profit from sugar cane in Guatemala.

With this in mind Trócaire activists and partner organisations travelled to Geneva in October to participate in the 5th UN session where UN member states are tasked with negotiating a human rights treaty to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. We were encouraged by the positive engagement with the Irish ambassador and we look forward to increased engagement of Ireland in the UN Treaty process. Trócaire activists handed over a petition of 8,163 signatures of support for the UN Treaty with a strong call for Ireland to become a champion of the UN Treaty. This is an issue that is resonating with people across Ireland, testament to the fact that we do not want to be complicit in a system that favours corporations over the human rights of people. Our reflections on the 5thsession include the following:

The need to keep gender on the agenda:

The UN Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights opened the session by stating that:

The human rights impact of economic activities that disregard people, are not neutral. They are not benign and they are not distributed equally. Business related human rights abuses impact different groups of people and rights-holders differently, and some disproportionally. Larger forces of discrimination and exclusion might be challenged by business, but more often have been entrenched.

While the revised draft of the UN Treaty (the focus of this session) had a significantly improved gender analysis than the previous Zero Draft, this needs further work and the intersectional perspective articulated by the Deputy High Commissioner should be reflected in the next draft.

It was very welcome to see multiple states making further suggestions to improve the text in this regard but disappointing that this did not include the EU or Ireland, a missed opportunity from our perspective. Trócaire’s oral statement to the session notes the importance of specifying the experiences of women human rights defenders and ensuring that free, prior and informed consent is articulated in the Treaty (CIDSE, Article 4). As noted by the Feminists for a Binding Treaty a gender transformative Treaty needs to reflect a feminist analysis that “highlights lived experiences and perspectives, with an emphasis on women and gender issues as well as on marginalised voices generally.” We need a transformative document to address protection, prevention and remedy, taking into account the differentiated impacts of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The revised draft provided a solid basis for substantive negotiations:

This was the starting point of the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and was certainly borne out as many member states engaged constructively with the text of the revised draft and made a range of interventions focused on accountability for business abuses of human rights, the need for preventative measures and the right to effective remedy in the context of the activities of transnational corporations. 89 member states were in attendance, with an increase in overall support for the Treaty, and the most support coming from the Latin American and Caribbean region. However, the lack of preparation and participation by some UN member states remains a problem and a steady pace of negotiations, including inter-sessional discussions and national consultations in advance of the 6th session is necessary. As noted by South Africa, “the Treaty is an opportunity to show that multilateralism works and is responsive to the most vulnerable people, especially women in developing countries.” A much-needed perspective in the current global context where multilateralism is under threat.

The EU and Ireland need to take a stronger role in the negotiations:

The stark dichotomy between the forthright position of the European Parliament versus that of the EU delegation, represented by the European External Action Service, was again apparent in the negotiations. As MEPs, Manon Aubry, Maria Arena and Clare Daly made strong statements in support of the Treaty, the EU stated that they could not participate in the discussions as they do not have a negotiation mandate, as was also the case last year. As noted by Clare Daly “[t]his Treaty is urgently needed to help address the gaps in the global legal framework, which is out of step with the global economic and business reality.”

It was very welcome that France, Belgium and Spain intervened in the negotiations in light of this urgency. It is now time for other member states, including Ireland, to follow suit and to begin to actively contribute to these vital discussions. As noted by Donald Hernandez, director of CEHPRODEC in Honduras, a partner organisation with Trócaire:

this Treaty is very important for our communities that suffer at the hands of corporations and states in the name of profit, and for human rights defenders who risk their lives to speak up. I think the EU Member States should also speak up and support the Treaty to protect our communities from transnational corporations.

A recent report by the European Parliament maps legal cases against EU companies, which involve allegations of gross human rights abuses such as murder and complicity to murder, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both the EU and individual member states need to take responsibility and respond to the clear need to regulate the activities of corporations. Indeed the lack of engagement of the EU in the UN Treaty process stands in stark contrast to their push for the enforcement of investor rights in bilateral agreements.

Civil society participation must be protected:

The final day of negotiations culminated in an alarming attempt by several states, including Brazil and China, to oust civil society from future negotiations. Thankfully this was rejected by strong interjections from the EU, Egypt and Azerbaijan. Civil society has been crucial to this process and this space, particularly for affected communities and human rights defenders, must be maintained.

We need a strong UN Treaty, that will acknowledge the contribution of human rights defenders and communities, put in place mechanisms to protect them and prevent corporations from violating their rights, provide access to remedy, and that will ensure the specific harms and exclusion faced by women are addressed. You can get more details and join our campaign here.


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