Human rights are universal. Nevertheless, in particular with regard to global entrepreneurial activities, they are being violated time and again, especially in countries belonging to the global South. Yet, in practice it is often not possible to hold parent companies liable for human rights violations and environmental damage. Hence, since 2014 negotiations on a binding agreement, which shall impose due diligence in view of adhering to human rights, have been going on in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. For this purpose, the Brussels Office of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour (AK Europa), the Brussels Office of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB Europabüro), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) invited to a discussion on 24 September to debate the issue of how human rights may be protected more effectively.
In her introduction, Isabelle Schömann, ETUC Confederal Secretary, referred to the current momentum at international and EU Level, which had to be used to protect people. She also expressed the urgency to combine the efforts of trade unions and NGOs and to increasingly take joint action to hold corporations liable for their human rights violations. Furthermore, workers and their representatives are not only victims; they could also be actors in the implementation process of due diligence in companies.
To underline the importance of entrepreneurial due diligence, Claudia Saller, European Coalition for Corporate Justice, recalled the case of the burning textile factory in Karachi, where more than 250 workers died. The main customer, the European Group KiK, accepted inadequate fire safety precautions and bad working conditions to increase its profits. Admittedly, there are voluntary guiding principles relating to companies and human rights at UN level since 2011; however, they need to be extended. Important are: (1) the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights by the state including legislation, which also binds commercial enterprises; (2) human rights due diligence of companies, which, based on this had to risk assess their own activities with the objective to prevent negative effects of their operation and (3) providing victims with access to effective out-of-court and judicial measures. Saller pointed out that the number of European states, which enshrined or negotiated legislation on due diligence at national level, is constantly growing. Cooperation between the three levels of the national states, the European Union and the United Nations are, therefore, essential.
In the following discussion, Heidi Hautala, Green Vice President of the European Parliament, emphasised that currently an important momentum exists due to the public attention in respect to climate change and deforestation. The question, which purpose companies have, is the question of our time. People and some companies now strongly demand that companies would assume responsibility in case of human rights violations and the destruction of the environment. She cited progressive chocolate processing companies as an example, which themselves demand binding regulations to force their competitors to engage in fair competition. Hautala spoke of a Shadow EU Action Plan to implement the 2011 UN Guiding Principles and urged the Commission to submit such an action plan with sanctions and corporate liability along the entire supply chain.
Thomas Wagnsonner, rapporteur for the UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights in the European Economic and Social Committee, added that the EU Commission plays a major part in the negotiations on the UN Treaty and has to obtain a mandate. It is essential that the Member States adopt a unified policy in the negotiations. The negotiations in EWSA with the business side had shown that there are hardliners that rejected any kind of regulation; however, some companies demand stronger binding standards. This would ensure fair competition for all.
Maija Laurila, European Commission, explained that in the current transition period the focus was on enforcing existing regulations. However, at the same time they are looking at the options concerning a European Regulation on due diligence. The priority of the new Commission lies with generally achieving the UN Sustainability Goals. Regarding the UN Treaty, the EU Commission is currently examining the newly submitted draft text and the possibility to renewed its participation in the negotiations. At the same time, the EU Commission has commissioned a study, which will deal with entrepreneurial due diligence.
Based on a concrete example of French legislation, Juliette Renaud, Friends of the Earth France, provided an insight into the practice. In 2017, France adopted a law on entrepreneurial due diligence (Loi Devoir de Vigilance). Renaud pointed out that unfortunately intensive lobbying by the business side had led to watering down the law. Practical experience shows that not only civil but also criminal law responsibility is required. In addition, due diligence alone is not sufficient: a constant process for protecting victims is crucial. She also reported of the first lawsuit against the Total Oil Company on the basis of this French law. The case against Total will show how well the law is protecting people and the environment.
The next meeting of the Human Rights Councils on a binding treaty will take place in October. It will show to what extent it is possible to find a unified European approach. One thing is already clear: the massive violations of human rights and environmental pollution by entrepreneurial activities demand an assertive and strong reply. This will ensure that people and the environment can be better protected and that the competition between companies will become fairer.