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Business and Human Rights

Why we need a Business & Human Rights Treaty

10 questions answered on why we need a treaty to make global corporations respect human rights.

1. So what’s this global business and human rights treaty all about?

Corporate greed is leading to land being seized, forests being cut down and rivers poisoned. Those who stand up to defend their rights are being harassed, intimidated, even murdered.

Indigenous communities often face the impact of this race for natural resources. Last year, 247 human rights defenders were murdered for defending their land and communities. Women human rights defenders are also being targeted through threats of sexual violence and smear campaigns.

Currently there is no international treaty to ensure businesses respect human rights. A global binding treaty would be a game-changer in ensuring vulnerable people are protected and big business acts ethically.

2. But aren’t there existing laws that companies have to follow?

The 21st century economy is dominated by large transnational corporations. These private companies are often wealthier and more powerful than the countries they operate in. Corporations hide behind complicated structures to avoid legal responsibility.

Furthermore, communities in the developing world often cannot seek legal protection in the countries where the corporation is based. For example, under Irish law there are no practical ways for potential victims of human rights violations by an Irish company overseas to seek justice in Irish courts.

Basically, the global human rights legal framework has not kept pace with the modern globalised economy. The measures states are following to protect human rights are largely voluntary and are failing to prevent human rights violations.

If companies are free to pick and choose whether they respect human rights, abuses will continue to occur.

3. So what would a business and human rights treaty actually do?

A binding treaty would make respecting human rights a legal requirement for companies.

It could prevent abuses from happening by making it mandatory for companies to assess the potential human rights impact of their planned operations on local communities. Indigenous people would have to give prior consent to projects that affected them.

A treaty could also improve redress, which could open up avenues for victims to seek justice. Multinationals would no longer be able to wash their hands of responsibility by pushing the blame on to their local subsidiaries. A strong treaty would also allow communities to be able to take foreign companies to court in their own country.

A strong treaty will have provisions to protect human rights defenders and allow them to do their work without fear of reprisals.

4. Is this campaign anti-business?

A treaty is not about being anti-business, it’s about responsible business. Jobs and economic growth can allow communities to escape out of poverty. This campaign is not anti-business, it’s about ensuring that the hunt for profit does not violate human rights in the process.

5. Shouldn’t we just target specific companies?

Campaigns targeting individual companies can be effective at highlighting bad behaviour and sometimes result in changes after ‘naming and shaming’. But what we really need is a level playing field, and global rules that are enforceable and which all companies have to obey.

Fundamentally, stronger regulation of business globally will have a greater impact than trying to change the behaviour of individual companies. If we change the system, our impact could be huge.

6. But do international treaties work?

Enforcing international treaties always presents difficulties and an international treaty on business and human rights would be no different. While it’s despairing to see Donald Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change treaty, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the world’s countries are still in the Paris treaty and are taking action on a really difficult global problem. Global treaties can work – for example, the Montreal Treaty saved the ozone layer.

7. Is this treaty currently being negotiated?

Governments have come together at the UN and have negotiated a first draft of a Business and Human Rights Treaty. However, many wealthy countries are opposed to the creation of the Treaty and are attempting to weaken it or derail the process entirely. In October 2019 the UN will convene a meeting where states will begin negotiations on the first draft of the proposed treaty.

8. Where does the EU/Ireland/UK stand on the creation of the Treaty?

Disappointingly, the EU is strongly opposed to a Treaty on Business and Human Rights. Powerful companies are lobbying hard against the creation of this treaty. As a result, countries that are home states of large transnational corporations have opposed the process.

Ireland has not supported the Treaty. The Tánaiste has said he is open to looking at options to progress a legally binding Treaty. However, so far Ireland has been absent from the Treaty negotiations and has not played a leadership role in this process.

The UK has also not engaged in the process to create the Treaty. However, guidance on UK Support for Human Rights Defenders includes a pledge to use all routes, bilateral and multilateral, to create stronger global standards to support and protect HRDs. In light of this, the UK should participate constructively in the Treaty process.

9. How can I learn more about this issue?

Read our report ‘Making a Killing: Holding corporations to account for land and human rights violations’ which explores in-depth the issue and the need for a global treaty.

10. How can I make a difference?

We need to show governments that there is strong support for this Treaty. People power is essential for our governments to take notice. Learn more and take action here.

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