Ecuador led a call to the UN Human Rights Council to create more binding, enforceable, international human rights obligations for transnational corporations (TNCs), on Friday September 13. Ecuador’s petition is supported by nine other nations, mostly from the South, and hundreds of civil society organizations worldwide, including Friends of the Earth International. TNCs continue to bear a large share of the blame for environmental, social and labor abuses around the world. Too often, unsafe or inhumane working conditions and environmental degradation lie in the dark shadows cast by giant TNCs.

The Ecuador petition is a sign of growing impatience with an ongoing process, which has been personified in the figure of Professor John Rugge, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). To (over) simplify, the principles are a set of voluntary guidelines, obliging signatories (including businesses) to take responsibility for their operations and to do ‘due diligence’ on the human rights contexts in their spheres of operation. The principles, though still in a relatively early phase of development, have been popularly slammed for not going far enough. This latest Ecuadoran initiative is welcomed by over one hundred social movements and civil society organizations, including Friends of the Earth International. They argue that the voluntary framework is symptomatic of a CSR-led approach that facilitates corporate impunity by allowing TNCs to appear to remedy the ill consequences of their operations, without taking any meaningful action at all.

Looking at the events of recent years reveals many instances of the persistence of corporate impunity and government failure to take action. The workers killed and injured in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the slaughter of miners in the Lonmin Plcs platinum mine in South Africa, or Ecuador’s failure to comply with the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the Sarayaku indigenous people are just some of the many examples of the failure of businesses and governments to meet their obligations.

“There is no doubt that transnational corporations have the obligation to respect the law, and if they do not, they must suffer the civil and penal sanctions,” said Lucia Ortiz, Coordinator of the Economic Justice Program of Friends of the Earth International. And face the consequences they must, but questions persist about how best to do this. However, characterizing the Ecuadoran initiative as new is to forget that it is just one in a series of (often far more elaborate and detailed) proposals such as the 2003 ‘Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights’, which have, like their voluntary counterparts, failed to introduce meaningful, binding mechanisms.

Problems to the implementation of a working set of human rights laws that would hold TNCs and their mother governments responsible for their actions are manifold. TNCs often fight hard to resist regulation. Existing approaches, whether products of the UN Human Rights Council, the International Labour Organization, or a regional human rights body, are all largely unenforceable. More worrying still is that national laws and regulations covering workplace safety, environmental responsibilities, etc. are often comprehensive, robust and utterly ignored in many ‘competitive’ countries around the world where human rights abuses are rife. Meanwhile, countries that are home to some of the world’s largest corporations, such as Canada, the USA, China, Brazil and many EU countries, are unwilling to fully implement the oversights necessary to ensure that companies with a home within their borders respect human rights in their operations.

The trouble with voluntary principles is that many parties view them as an almighty standard of correct human rights behavior; a rubber stamp to be flaunted for its apparent merit, but sorely lacking in real meaning and consequence. While due diligence and other aspects of any voluntary principles are only to be commended, they certainly are not enough to ensure fair treatment for people around the world or the minimization of the environmental violence perpetrated by so many TNCs, so in critiquing the damaging elements of the UNGPs and other CSR strategies we would be unwise to ditch the baby with the bath water. Likewise, if the Ecuador led proposal is to stand out from earlier, similar incarnations, further thinking is needed on how to ensure compliance and the cooperation of governments and businesses.