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Business and Human Rights

What if FIFA had a duty to ensure the World Cup’s location had environmental and human rights standards?

Maria Mercedes Gomez, 65, is from the Rio Blanco community who are resisting the construction of a hydro-electric dam. Photo : Garry Walsh Maria Mercedes Gomez, 65, is from the Rio Blanco community who are resisting the construction of a hydro-electric dam. Photo : Garry Walsh

In the run up to the men’s World Cup in Qatar this year, there was a question to be asked of football fans: Will you watch it, despite the human rights breaches, migrant deaths, and anti-LGBTI rhetoric of the country? The question rippled across countries, with many prominent footballers and people opting not to watch in protest.

However, what if FIFA had a duty to ensure that, on choosing the World Cup’s location, the country in question had reached a certain set of standards in relation to environmental and human rights?

This is the question currently being asked by EU legislators in relation to corporations: can a legal obligation be introduced so that companies had to check through their whole value chain, from the workers on the ground to the marketing of the product, to ensure that a minimum level of human rights and environmental duties were met?

The answer, so far, is yes, but the strength of the proposed new EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive is questionable, says Garry Walsh, policy and advocacy advisor at Trócaire. “If you set up a business tomorrow, there is no legal duty to check for environmental damage, runaway greenhouse gas emissions, sweat shops, child labour, all things that are quite rampant in supply chains. We currently have to rely on voluntary measures and good practice.”

Unfortunately, voluntary measures are not working, and as a result of corporations, there are land grabs, forced evictions, human rights defenders being attacked or killed, and rivers being poisoned. This new Directive is seeking to mitigate such harmful practices. “At the moment, there’s a legislative gap, there isn’t a set of rules at a global level, EU level, or at an Irish level that would make it a legal duty to assess human rights breaches.”

Trócaire Policy and Advocacy Advisor Garry Walsh addressing the 8th session to advance a Treaty on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. Trócaire Policy and Advocacy Advisor Garry Walsh addressing the 8th session to advance a Treaty on Business and Human Rights in Geneva.

This EU Directive has to go through three bodies: the EU Commission, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament. The Commission released their draft of the Directive last year: it created a new legal duty for companies to do due diligence on both human rights and environmental breaches. “It is quite comprehensive,” says Walsh, “but there are significant weaknesses as well.” One of these is that it is narrow in scope, “it should have greater ambition, and should apply to a wider set of businesses.” The draft Directive will only apply to 1% of European companies.

Later in the year, the Directive then made its way to EU Member States in the Council, where it was further weakened, which was “deeply disappointing”, in particular the exclusion of the finance sector. “It would be at the discretion of the member state to include the finance sector which is de facto an exclusion,” says Walsh. “Cutting out finance means pension funds, asset managers won’t have to check their assets and the harm they can create. Me personally, paying my monthly pension, I don’t want that connected to labour rights abuses or deforestation.”

“It’s simply not good enough that it’s been cut out, but the good news is that it’s not over yet.”

The Directive now goes to Parliament where “key committees come together to develop their position, and then the Commission, Council and Parliament will come together later in the year to finalise.”

Irish MEPs are active on some of the key committees, including MEP Barry Andrews who is steering the Trade Committee’s deliberations on this Directive. He has managed to secure a majority in a key vote on Tuesday to strengthen the Directive, including widening the number of companies that would be covered, and including finance as a ‘high risk sector’.

“This legislation is a vital cog in holding large businesses to account to ensure that they meet their environmental and human rights obligations” tweeted Andrews following Tuesday’s vote.

On the internal market committee, MEP Deirdre Clune will be steering that committee towards its position, and other Irish MEPs will also have a chance to cast their vote in crucial decisions on this Directive in coming weeks.

“If this law is done well, it could be a game-changer,” says Walsh, “a weak directive would be very disappointing for the communities we work with. If it becomes a glorified tick box, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It creates more bureaucracy without solving the problems on the ground.”

Prevention and resolution will be evidence of a successful Directive, but it will take time. “Proof of this will be actually preventing harms on the ground to communities. Trócaire wants to see abuses and harms to the people we work with to be prevented and for communities to be able to seek justice.”

A strong Directive would create a “level playing field,” emphasises Walsh. “Irish people are fed up of products they consume and services they subscribe to being connected to unsustainable or harmful practices such as child labour, and people are increasingly sceptical of green-washing.

“At the moment, it’s hard as a consumer to know who to trust and there are still many reports of high-profile brands that are connected to abuses. A strong law would make it a requirement that there are rules that everyone follows.”

“Our campaign is not anti-business, we want responsible business in a level playing field.”

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