On 29 May 2019, a public hearing on the UN binding treaty on business and human rights took place in the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Prior to the next negotiation round at EU level, which will take place in October, experts from academia as well as representatives of the social partners and NGOs had the opportunity to present their views on the treaty.
In order to prevent serious human right violations by corporations and to grant the victims access to legal remedies, different approaches at international, regional and national level had been initiated over the past two decades. However, so far a global binding framework does not exist. For this reason, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish a UN binding treaty on business and human rights in 2014. A first draft for the treaty (so-called “zero draft”) was presented in 2018. Whilst the EU Parliament has demanded a binding treaty in by now twelve resolutions, the Commission and the Member States so far have not used the negotiations to campaign for a UN treaty, but only adopted an observing to critical position.
Representatives of academia, employees and NGOs in favour of a treaty
In his introduction, Thomas Wagnsonner (AK Lower Austria, EESC rapporteur) urged to no longer ignore human rights violations and to make a good life possible for everyone. As examples he referred to the extraction of minerals in Congo for batteries in smartphones and electric cars or using child labour in Indian stone quarries, whose buyers are among other companies from Germany and the United Kingdom. Carlos López (International Commission of Jurists) supported the idea of imposing legal responsibility on companies. This would concern both civil and criminal responsibility.
Phil Bloomer (Business & Human Rights Research Centre) too appreciated the treaty as a good instrument to get business to focus on human rights. He underlined the role of the EU, whose purpose it was to contribute to shaping the treaty to ensure that the unequal power relations between companies and employees would not become even bigger. Nina Pineau (Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies) presented the Study “Access to legal remedies for victims of corporate human rights abuses in third countries”, which had been commissioned by the European Parliament. This study maps 35 cases of human rights violations, in which major European transnational corporations had been involved.
Rebekah Smith (BusinessEurope) voiced concerns regarding a binding UN treaty. Companies might leave and the text of the treaty was too vague. Apart from that, she argued, it was not only companies that had to be take responsibility but also countries. Makbule Sahan (International Trade Union Confederation) commented that the current voluntary approach has not been able to solve the problems of globalisation and supported a broad scope of application concerning the treaty. Adding to this, Claudia Saller (European Coalition for Corporate Justice) demanded that the treaty had to provide support for victims, including the opportunity to file class action lawsuits. Companies too would support the project, which was an important signal. However, said Saller it was necessary to also hold state-owned companies responsible. Finally, Rene Pamplona (Convergence of Initiatives for Environmental Justice Philippines) illustrated the consequences of the business activities of transnational mining companies on the Philippines for air quality, the destruction of nature and the working conditions and referred to the lack of sanction mechanisms currently available.
AK-ÖGB letter to EESC: A clear commitment to the UN Binding Treaty
To achieve a successful conclusion of the treaty negotiations it would be extremely important for the EU to support the binding treaty with one strong voice. AK President Renate Anderl and ÖGB President Wolfgang Katzian underlined this concern in a letter to the competent decision-makers in the EESC. In their letter, AK and ÖGB demand among other the introduction of due diligence, access to fair and effective legal remedies, cross-border cooperation between countries as well as the establishment of an enforcement mechanism, which monitors compliance with the treaty.