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Business and Human Rights

Why is the EU not supporting global action on corporate abuse of human rights?

Countries around the world have come together to negotiate global rules that would force businesses to respect human rights. Yet the EU is largely silent on what could be a historic new UN treaty to protect communities around the world from exploitation.

Trócaire activist Tony Devlin travelled to Geneva in 2019 to put pressure on the Irish government to take action on corporate accountability. Photo : Jeannie McCann / Trócaire Trócaire activist Tony Devlin travelled to Geneva in 2019 to put pressure on the Irish government to take action on corporate accountability. Photo : Jeannie McCann / Trócaire

Across the world, in many of the communities Trócaire works in, we are hearing about land grabs, forced evictions, the pollution of land and environmental degradation. These are all connected with the activities of businesses, as rights are trampled on in the pursuit of profit.

There is a global race for natural resources and at the same time there are a lack of laws and regulations in place to prevent corporate exploitation, particularly in countries with weak legal systems. Corporations have huge power, and they are acting in the pursuit of profit to the detriment of the environment and human rights.

The people who are standing up to this in communities are being attacked, an issue which has been highlighted by UN special representatives. This rise in attacks against human rights defenders varies from smear campaigns, to undermining their credibility, labelling them as terrorists, criminalisation, and also imprisoning people often without trial.

It’s not just criminalisation and judicial harassment, people are even being murdered for defending the environment and their communities, all in the face of corporate interests. Mostly people who are affected by corporate harm are not seeing justice and they are not getting reparations.

For these reasons, we urgently need global action to prevent corporate abuse of human rights. Countries around the world are coming together to negotiate a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights. This could be a historic turning point, an opportunity to move away from the failed approach of voluntary guidelines, to a binding set of global rules that would actually have teeth.

There are many cases of EU companies that are complicit in human rights and environmental violations whether directly by their companies, by subsidiaries or along their supply chains. Thus there is an obligation on the EU to take serious action on corporate accountability and support the treaty.

Yet at last month’s treaty negotiation sessions at the UN, the EU was largely silent. They failed to formally negotiate, and while other states negotiated the text of the Treaty, the EU remained on the sidelines.

Why we need the EU in the room

For the last six years there has been an annual global session where UN members examine the current draft of the Business and Human Rights treaty and negotiate on the text. Global negotiations are never easy, UN treaties such as the Convention on Torture took years to be developed.

Yet there has been significant progress on the UN Treaty so far. The current draft of the Treaty has some important improvements from the previous draft, such as improvements in access to remedy across jurisdictions, better gender provisions and stronger protection of indigenous people’s rights.

As the negotiations progress, it is crucial that the EU represents us in this important multi-state forum. If they continue to remain silent, we have no voice in these discussions. While the EU remains silent, and therefore undermines any progression on global corporate accountability, other states are seeking to undermine and water down the improvements to the treaty.

For instance, this year China was arguing to weaken the provisions around human rights due diligence and Russia argued against inclusion of environmental rights. Brazil questioned the need for the reversal of the burden of proof, which is a crucial element in addressing the power imbalance between communities and large corporations. These are some of the provisions that would hold corporations truly accountable.

While the corporate lobby may be exerting significant influence, over 800,000 citizens throughout the EU demanded that the EU support this treaty. 75 MEPs have written to the EU asking them to get a formal mandate to negotiate on the treaty, and there has been over 10 European parliament resolutions on this.

Given the EU silence at the negotiations, we all need to hold our politicians to account to ensure that we are not buying or consuming goods that are linked to human rights or environmental abuses. This treaty is so important to putting in place a framework to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Ireland can play an active role

Giving some hope, we know that Ireland is part of a group of countries within the EU that are arguing for more engagement by the EU in the treaty process. We would like to see this pressure resulting in a clear EU position that is constructive and is supportive of the treaty and that the EU has a formal mandate to negotiate in the upcoming sessions during 2021.

During the week of negotiations this year Trócaire held an event with partners where we looked at the situation of mining in Colombia. At that event a member of the Wayuu indigenous community who are affected by the El Cerrejón mine spoke about the impact of this mine on their community.

They spoke about the devastating health impacts and how the mine was affecting the cultural survival of their community. This is a mine where ESB have purchased coal for the last 20 years, so Ireland is also linked to these violations and abuses. We have a responsibility to act.

Citizens need to keep the pressure on, we need people to keep raising our voices on this issue. Trócaire is campaigning actively on the issue, so please join our campaign to get involved.

Hopefully we can make this treaty a reality, in solidarity with the Wayu community in Colombia and the communities throughout the world who are challenging corporate human rights abuses.

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