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Business and Human Rights: The world is still waiting for action

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The international community adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in June 2011, pledging to address the adverse impacts of business activities. Five years later, progress has been minimal.

Article also published in Euractiv, and in Austria, France and Spain.

Nike’s use of child labourers was a big issue in the 90s. Nestlé’s profiting from child slavery in its Ivory Coast supply chains made headlines in early 2000. Likewise, the social and environmental harms caused by Shell in Nigeria will not easily wash away from public memory

The UNGPs’ endorsement in 2011 represented an important step towards improved corporate accountability. They were the first global standard articulating that States must protect human rights against the adverse impacts of business activity, and ensure access to justice and remedy for victims, while companies have a responsibility to prevent and address their negative impacts.

With the Principles, the debate moved from why to how should States ensure company responsibility for human rights. The moment brought hope and energy to a David and Goliath battle civil society and victims of corporate abuse had been fighting for decades.

But the UNGPs are only as effective as our governments allow them to be. And in the five years since their adoption, civil society excitement wore off quickly. It became obvious that despite their public commitments, the EU and its Member States were in no hurry to walk the talk.

Proof is the multitude of human rights and environmental scandals that continued to surface. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, Dieselgate and the gross mistreatment of workers on FIFA’s Qatar 2022 stadiums, are just some examples of continuing corporate disregard for people and the planet. And the endemic extends to all industries: from mining to textiles, from agriculture to electronics.

Why is progress stalling?

On paper, the EU regards the UNGPs as “the authoritative policy framework in addressing corporate social responsibility”, acknowledging that better implementation of the UNGPs contributes to core EU objectives, some enshrined in EU Treaties, like combating slavery, child labour, discrimination, poverty, low labour standards etc.

In reality, the EU-wide approach to business and human rights is limited to the promotion of voluntary and business-driven CSR, a system of rewards and recognitions in line with the wishes of conservative business lobby associations. As a result, most accountability gaps remain unfilled and people in developing countries harmed by EU corporations have often no access to justice.

What could the EU and our governments do?

In 2011, the EU called on its Member States to develop National Action Plans (NAPs) for the UNGPs’ implementation, with the promise to shortly deliver one of its own. To date, that promise is yet to be met.

And while seven EU States have released NAPs, these plans lack teeth, neither delivering on process, nor on content, nor effectively addressing the challenges faced by victims of company activity in seeking justice.

Along with developing robust action plans, other concrete opportunities for our governments to enhance business responsibility exist, in fields such as company reporting, trade and investment, corporate governance or public procurement.

One area for immediate action is to pass laws that make it mandatory for companies to identify, prevent and mitigate their adverse impacts - in other words, conduct ‘human rights due diligence’ as called for in the UNGPs.  

A French law is currently about to be adopted which could be a major breakthrough in this direction, because it would require large French companies to develop ‘vigilance plans’ addressing the human rights and environmental impacts linked to their operations, as well as those of subsidiaries and partners. Civil society has presented similar proposals in Switzerland and Germany.

The EU should also engage in the groundbreaking international effort to develop a new global treaty on business and human rights. The EU has so far failed to constructively participate in this the process initiated at UN-level, in contrast to its eagerness to push through the TTIP deal.

Preparing for five more years

The alarming scale and serious nature of the abuse taking place globally makes effective action on business and human rights an urgent matter. Five years of UNGPs have already passed without major progress: this means the next five are vital.

While decision-makers are falling behind on their promises, it’s the people and the planet paying the price for their idleness. A truth the families of 1100 Rana Plaza victims know too well. It takes political will to push the agenda forward and the EU and our governments need to act on their responsibilities, because workers and communities around the world affected by our businesses cannot wait any longer.

Read more about the UNGPs: state of play and next steps

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