Civil society support for a legally binding treaty to regulate transnational corporations is growing, particularly in the Global South. Yet, rather than engaging with the United Nations treaty negotiations, the European Union is delaying and derailing the process. How can the EU claim it is committed to protecting human rights and those that defend them, when it is attempting to shut down this historical process?
In 2015 a United Nations intergovernmental working group began work on a treaty to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. Despite 11 European countries voting against the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, it is receiving widespread support and negotiations are progressing towards a fourth session in October, when a Zero Draft will start to be negotiated. The EU operates as a block in Geneva, which means that it coordinates the position of all the individual member states.
Calls for a legal mechanism to prevent corporate human rights abuses and attacks on democratically-elected governments have been repeated since Salvador Allende’s remarkable 1972 speech to the UN General Assembly. Corporate crimes against the environment and peoples’ rights have continued unabated since then, while violence against defenders of territories and collective rights have reached alarming levels. Companies are rarely, if ever, held to account.
Many countries have been developing concrete proposals regarding the content and implementation of a binding treaty to close gaps in international human rights law and improve affected peoples’ access to justice. This includes national legislation within European states establishing legal obligations for transnational corporations to prevent human rights abuses and environmental damages along their whole supply chains. Huge developments pushed by organized civil society and parliaments are happening in countries like France and Switzerland.
But the EU remains obstructive. Representatives failed to show up to opening negotiations at the UN in 2015, and only engaged in 2016 and 2017 after pressure from civil society organizations. During the most recent informal consultations, in May and June, the EU continued to impede negotiations by calling for a new resolution to reduce the working group’s mandate. That would mean the reversal of four years of progress, and give the EU a chance to change the scope of the treaty, or water it down to a mere amendment of the voluntary Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The Zero Draft to be elaborated this month is the result of three sessions of fruitful debates involving states, civil society, experts, and affected communities’ representatives, as well as opposing business associations, and it must be based on the elements paper discussed in the final session last year.
For Friends of the Earth International, the key elements to make the new legally binding instrument effective include obligations for transnational corporations to respect human rights, corporate liability in case of violations, transparency in supply chains to pierce the corporate veil that allows companies to avoid responsibility, and an international human rights court that affected people can turn to if their national courts fail to provide access to justice. The Zero Draft must establish the primacy of human rights over trade agreements, provide paths for reparations for affected communities, and protect defenders of territories from future abuses. This requires regulations to prevent international financial institutions from acting with impunity when financing destructive projects or supporting policies that undermine people’s rights to public services.
All the voluntary mechanisms in the world will not secure the lives of defenders of territories from systemic threats and attacks by corporations on the environment, livelihoods, and people’s rights. It would be an historical failure for universal human rights law if, after more than 45 years of fighting for accountability of transnational corporations, the UN working group, with Ecuador as chair supported by more than 100 UN member states, yielded to the EU’s obstructive tactics.
It cannot be the EU’s intention to openly abandon human rights defenders across the world. European citizens do not want to go down in history as the region that blocked this historic opportunity to provide justice to the millions of people who have suffered at the hands of transnational corporations. The EU should not ignore the more than 400 civil society organizations worldwide urging governments to constructively engage with the Zero Draft negotiations in October. The EU must not stand against the growing number of resolutions from regional and national parliaments, including the European Parliament, to hold transnational corporations to account.
Today, the fourth informal negotiations on the UN treaty will be held in Geneva. Rather than arguing against the process for procedural reasons, and seeking consultations out of sight of civil society, we call on the EU to finally start supporting the process. It is time for the European Union to stand with its constituents and global human rights defenders, to end corporate impunity.