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Business and human rights on the EU agenda: new hopes for progress?

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Several initiatives at EU and national levels will ensure that the coming months will be busy on the business and human rights front.

A major one is the European Commission’s public consultation on the future European strategy on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which closed on the 15th August. The analysis of the results will be the basis for discussions in the upcoming European Forum on CSR which will gather States, business, consumers, trade unions and NGOs in February 2015. Although ECCJ has concerns that the business and human rights strategy risks of being treated as just another chapter of the Commission’s CSR strategy, and thus calls for specific plans on business and human rights, the process to revise the EU approach to CSR – now defined as “the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society” - is particularly important, and will show where the new Commission is willing to set the bar.

As the main civil society network involved in this debate, we expressed support for some of the improvements brought under the 2011-2014 strategy, such as the new definition of CSR, the need for regulation in addition to voluntary measures, the importance of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights (UNGPs), the international dimension of corporate responsibility, and the need for rules on transparency. However, even if the previous CSR strategy seemed to open the door to regulatory action to ensure corporations respect environmental standards, labour and human rights wherever they operate, the term ends with a mixed record.

If corporate transparency has been improved with the reforms on non-financial reporting and country-by-country reporting, there have been a number of major missed opportunities (e.g. public procurement, conflict minerals proposal). In the end, it is difficult to point to concrete changes in the accountability of EU business . To the highly welcomed change of discourse in 2011, more tangible change in policies and legislation towards accountability must finally echo in 2015 – that will be the aim pursued by ECCJ in its advocacy work vis-à-vis the European Commission.

On the UNGPs front, the continued delays of the Commission to develop its report on business and human rights are of concern. Initially meant to come by the end of 2012, the report is now announced for October 2014, and is expected to depict a “state of play” rather than a forward-looking scheme with concrete measures. Several Commission services (enterprise, trade, justice, development, external action) are involved though, so at least this report should mark the beginning a true Commission-wide engagement on business and human rights.

Several European Member States have already released their National Action Plans (NAPs) to implement the UNGPs, and others are well advanced in the process. But first assessments show that many still lack concrete action and are generally limited to voluntary measures; solutions to improve access to remedies for victims of corporate abuses are gravely missing from these plans (you can find an assessment of the UK plan here and of the Dutch plan here). A new, useful tool is now available to civil society and governments to engage in a more robust NAP development process. ICAR (US) and the Danish Institute for HR have released a “NAP Toolkit” which outlines the key elements of an effective NAP. In parallel, ECCJ and ICAR are coordinating an assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and key trends of the released NAPs against the key criteria of the toolkit. We hope that the report, expected in November, will help pushing governments towards a better implementation of the UNGPs.

In the international level the EU and its Member States have disappointed, showing hypocrisy by openly opposing the UN Human Right Council decision to initiate a process towards an international binding instrument on business and human rights.They justified it by arguing that more time should be given to the implementation of the UNGPs, which Europe was taking seriously but that according to them, were still in their infancy. This justification just doesn’t hold true in the face of the delays and weaknesses in the development of EU and national plans that address the State duties to protect human rights and guarantee access to justice for victims of corporate abuse. These two fronts – taking action at EU and national levels plus engaging in the discussions at global level – are not self-excluding. On the contrary, and civil society will be pushing States to do both.

In the next few months, the neglected issue of access to judicial remedies for victims of corporate abuses will be one of the ECCJ’s primary focuses. In this framework, a high level conference will take place in Brussels in November to discuss the need for EU leadership to remove the obstacles faced by victims seeking justice. This conference will conclude a round of similar events held in London, Paris and Berlin.

The political context is challenging. Very few Member States seem ready to propose the needed reforms. What’s more, a new European Commission has been proposed by President Juncker (see here the nominated Commissioners) that raises concerns for the corporate accountability movement: Juncker’s team, composed largely of Commissioners from conservative parties and governments, whose mantra is “ better regulation” (understood by many governments as deregulation) will be in charge of key portfolios. Yet amidst these threats we see very promising initiatives, which are often the result of great civil society pressure: such as a parliamentary initiative of parent company duty of care in France, an initiative to eradicate slavery from UK company’s supply chains, the Swiss parliamentary committee calling its government to mandate corporate due diligence, or in Denmark where the government set up a group to look at the need of legislation to regulate the overseas activities of Danish companies.

Far from the thick high walls of the Berlaymont where the European Commission sits and the cosy rooms of policy makers in European capital cities, communities around the world continue to be affected by the operations of European companies. Corporate scandals such as the recent one revealing that supply chains of major European retailers was tainted with slave labour continue bringing corporate accountability into the public limelight, showing that corporate human rights and environmental violations are not limited to a sector nor a country. It is high time that the EU takes a bold approach to tackle this urgent and complex issue. ECCJ and its members will ensure that this message gets heard.

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