During the opening session of UN discussions on a legally binding treaty to hold transnational corporations (TNCs) accountable for human rights violations, the EU worked hard to undermine and obstruct the process. TNCs are directly or indirectly involved in a huge number of human rights abuses every day and the people affected rarely see justice or accountability. The EU delegation chose to put those facts aside and work to slow and undermine the process.


The EU objected to the program of work for the meeting, demanding the inclusion of discussion of areas of work that have been covered in other talks – the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights. They also insisted on including language about the types of businesses under discussion, beyond TNCS, that pointed to a drastic change in the mandate of the working group (which was agreed in UN Human Rights Resolution 26/9 last year). Dealing with these last minute demands ate up almost a fifth of the working group’s precious time. We can only surmise that the EU used these tactics to undermine and delay the process to protect the interests of TNCs from the bloc’s states.

Having started a week of mobilization at UN Square, civil society organizations engaged in frantic lobbying efforts, both in the halls of the UN buildings and online, to turn the situation around.

Fortunately, the talks finally moved on. The EU delegation was not initially present on the morning of the second day of talks. When they finally arrived, their contribution was minimal and they soon left again.

The EU purports to champion human rights and yet it appears content to leave human rights aside when they are not convenient to its purposes. Too often those interests are pro-business, pro-corporate or pro-finance at the expense of ordinary people and their rights. This trend has been seen time and again in recent weeks as the EU heaped pressure on Greece to meet its impossible demands while Greek people struggle and suffer. And if the EU had approached these human rights discussions with the gleeful ferocity evident in their attitude to the free trade talks with the US, we may already have a human rights treaty by now.

Meanwhile, many other rich countries, home to the same TNCs whose human rights abuses give rise to the need to achieve civil and penal responsibility of corporations, have not been present in the talks at all. Notable by their absence are delegations from Norway, Canada or the USA. Of the countries represented in the chamber, many have been largely silent or have intervened only on bland procedural matters.

Civil society organizations, including Friends of the Earth International, will continue to engage with the talks and continue to call for meaningful, committed engagement of states.

Image: Victor Barro/Friends of the Earth International