New push for binding human rights rules for corporations

7 December 2014

Delegates from Friends of the Earth Europe and Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean were in Geneva this week representing Friends of the Earth International at the UN Forum on Businesses and Human rights. Not our natural habitat, since we do not lobby the UN in Geneva on a daily basis. However, since a resolution by Ecuador and South Africa was adopted at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June 2014, beginning a process to establish binding rules for businesses and human rights, our federation has become much more enthusiastic about engaging with UN and its officials in that process.

Such a Treaty would, for the first time, commit multinational corporations to be legally accountable for any human rights abuses that their business practices lead to abroad. Friends of the Earth International is part of the Treaty Alliance, a coalition of over 600 organisations that supports this Treaty Proposal by Ecuador and South Africa. Earlier this month, the Treaty Alliance organised a successful meeting in Geneva with over 50 participants, including many representatives of social movements and Southern NGOs, academic think tanks and other international NGO networks.

Meanwhile in Geneva the UN Forum on Businesses and Human Rights took place from December 1-3rd. Many high level speakers publicly supported the process for a binding Treaty, such as Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who told the plenary: "The Treaty proposal has been adopted, so political controversy should not be an obstacle to action." He also mentioned that business practices can cause damage, and referred to the Bhopal disaster.

However, representatives of the European Union remained sceptical about the political feasibility of the Treaty, stating that there is a risk that it will adopt low standards for businesses, and that it will slow down the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. They also raised a lot of questions about the content and process of the Working Group involved with developing the treaty as a way of justifying their aggressive opposition to binding instruments to prevent and address human rights violations by corporations during the June 2014 UNHRC session.

More support came from the representative of the Pope at the UN, who supported a binding instrument because: "...weak and poor states suffer the consequences of an asymmetry in the international system where the business companies rights are backed up by hard laws and strong enforcement mechanisms, while their obligations are backed up only by soft laws, such as voluntary guidelines."

The next step for the Treaty is an Inter-Governmental Working Group to be held in July 2015. Usually participation is open to organisations that are registered at the Economic and Social Council at the UN, but the UNHCHR has indicated that the working group may want to define new rules for participation. Such a move could increase possibilities for businesses to control the negotiations.

This is of great concern to Friends of the Earth International, because we have witnessed and exposed the corporate capture of the UN in the past, which damages the ability of the UN to find equitable and just solutions to international problems. Its willingness to address the role of major corporations in causing many of the environmental, social, food and economic problems that the world faces today is compromised, and if it continues, would certainly undermine our chances of getting a strong treaty adopted. Friends of the Earth International will monitor and expose if necessary the activities of multinational corporations at the UN to ensure that negotiations are not hijacked by corporate interests, and instead have at heart the interests of the affected people around the world.