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Business and Human Rights

A decade lost : Corporations policing themselves has failed, time to replace voluntary principles with strong laws

Ten years ago today, the UN introduced the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These provide voluntary guidelines for how businesses should behave responsibly in their operations. Yet asking businesses to voluntarily police themselves has failed to prevent abuses.

Maria Felicita Lopez: Photo: Simon Burch Maria Felicita Lopez: Photo: Simon Burch

The world is facing a double crisis: the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the burden of risk in supply chains that unevenly falls on the poorest workers and communities, and the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis, whose impacts are similarly hitting the most vulnerable hardest. We must now rebuild an economy that protects communities, workers and the environment – including from the negative impacts of companies.

Ten years ago today, the UN introduced the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These provide guidelines for how businesses can behave responsibly in their operations.

The Guiding Principles have been an important framework to establish the obligation of states to protect human rights, the responsibility of companies to respect human rights, and to facilitate access to remedy for those harmed.

However, they are not legally binding principles and they have not sufficiently been converted into binding, enforceable standards. To date, their implementation has given priority to voluntary corporate initiatives. These initiatives have failed to significantly change the way companies operate or achieve justice for victims of corporate abuse and have created an uneven playing field for businesses.

Voluntary approaches, guidelines and codes of conduct haven’t ended modern forms of slavery in the production of our clothes, or stopped huge deforestation and destruction of the environment, or prevented the killings of trade unionists and campaigners fighting for their community’s rights.

The Guiding Principles also containsome significant omissions, including the right of communities to say “no” to corporate activity on their land and territories (regardless of any action by companies to prevent or mitigate harmful impacts) and the interdependence of human rights and the environment.

Today, communities in the Global South continue to face human rights abuses and environmental destruction as a result of the operations and supply chains of powerful multinational companies based in richer countries, including in Europe.

These impacts include the loss of lives and livelihoods of workers, individuals and communities worldwide, pollution of invaluable natural resources such as rivers, land and forests, violation of the rights of indigenous people and those working in rural areas, and the loss of biodiversity.

Now is the time for legally binding and enforceable rules on human rights and the environment at national, EU and UN level. Companies must be liable for the harm they cause, contribute to or are directly linked to, even when this happens outside national boundaries. Communities and victims must be able to access justice for the harms they suffer.

We demand a strong UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights,which would hold companies accountable for human rights and environmental abuse under international law. We also need laws in Ireland and in the EU which include strong provisions on liability and access to justice. At present, there is a proposed new EU law on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence which should be supported.

Strong laws will ensure that businesses who do the right thing will not be undercut by irresponsible companies operating to lower standards, and that European businesses will not profit off the back of abuse committed out of sight.

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