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UN Treaty on Business & Human Rights negotiations Day 1 - Divide emerges between EU and other delegations

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• Inter-governmental meeting kicked off in Geneva, Monday 6 July 2015. • Negotiations’ goal is developing international regulations for the activities of transnational corporations in respect to human rights. • Strong presence from Civil Society Organisations. • EU’s proposal of two extra work plan conditions stalls negotiations and creates wedge between EU block and other delegations.

More than a year after the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 26/9, inter-governmental working group (IGWG) negotiations finally kicked off this Monday, 6 July, at Geneva’s Palais des Nations. The discussions represent the beginning of a lengthy process, spanning over several years, with the end goal of developing internationally binding regulation in the field of business and human rights.

Civil Society Organisations from around the globe mobilised in large numbers to Geneva to show their support for the initiative and once again speak out for the urgency of making respect for human rights central to all corporate activity. Their stance against corporate impunity was strengthened by the result of the Greek referendum announced on the same day, which saw the Greek people reclaim power in a clear refusal to accept externally-mandated austerity.

The creation of an international treaty regulating business’s impact on human rights is paramount in providing the many people affected by unscrupulous corporate activities the chance to rebalance the power scales. It is only by addressing gaps in current national, regional and international legislation and establishing a clear justice mechanism that holds companies accountable for their actions that we will achieve a global environment of equality and fairness.

EU Member States confirm predictions of low turnout

Only nine out of the 28 EU Member States attended the discussions on the first day [1]. Although showing-up in higher numbers than expected, the EU turn-out can still be counted as low and arguably be interpreted as a sign of disengagement with the Treaty process.

This comes as no surprise as over the last months, a negative attitude towards the establishment of the Treaty could be noticed across Europe. For example, a set of working parameters were put forth by the EU for the Geneva discussions, some of which incompatible with the position of the ‘pro-Treaty’ international block of States, thus promising to spur further debate.

EU propositions cause strong divisions

The meeting had a smooth start, with the unchallenged election of the ambassador of Ecuador as Chairperson-Rapporteur of the IGWG. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People set a positive tone, calling for ‘global response to global issues’ and ‘stronger tools to stop corporate impunity’. Brazil’s promise to engage constructively in the process, after it had previously voted against it, also contributed to the preliminary enthusiastic atmosphere.

But the general consensus ended when discussions began on the work plan of the IGWG. The EU representative – joined by the French and Luxemburg delegates – introduced two new Treaty conditions. The first was a call to put greater emphasis on the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and add a session on ‘a renewed commitment by all States’ for their implementation. While the second condition made reference to the existing footnote in the Resolution saying that the instrument only addresses transnational corporations. The EU called for any future binding instrument to encompass all enterprises – regardless of the transnational status of their activities. While several voices are saying the EU’s comment on scope is not without merit , the general opinion is that the EU should have reserved comment until a later moment in the debate, or until a session specially dedicated to such issues – like the Tuesday session on scope.

At the least, one could say the EU’s statements caused controversy – particularly its second demand. The EU block found no support among other delegations which argued that implementing these changes would alter the mandate given by the Resolution. Seeing how discussions were stalling, the Chair called for a short break for ‘informal consultations’. An hour later and no consensus reached, the Chair decided to close the morning session for lunch, without an agreement on the work plan.

The long lunch break which followed was probably a hectic time for delegations attempting to find solutions for compromise. In the meantime, civil society organizations present in Geneva took to social media, building pressure and intensely calling for constructive EU participation. In just a few hours, over 400 twitter accounts had mentioned the EU mission in Geneva.

As everyone returned to their seats, and the meeting recommenced, the Chair announced that a compromise had been reached on the first EU condition: the agenda would include a panel on UNGPs. The rapid resolve could be interpreted as a sign that, contrary to some voices, the UNGPs and the Treaty are not mutually excluding instruments. The EU’s second demand had received no support though. Therefore, a footnote to the working program on the scope of the regulations was proposed by the EU. The EU representative said the footnote idea had been suggested during lunch negotiations with other delegations. He described it as a compromise the 28 EU governments could live with, adding that it would allow flexibility for future discussion and ensure that an effective and meaningful process could take place within the IGWG. But once again, the room offered no support for the EU proposal – with States being either explicitly against or asking for more time to decide. Several delegations then urged the EU to engage in discussion and bring up the issue again later on during negotiations rather than leaving the debating process before it even starts.

Discussions on content begin – blockage overcome?

The Chair decided to proceed with the first panels and start discussions on content, with interventions from well-known members of the panel such as Mr. Michael Addo, Chairperson of the Working Group of the Human Rights Council on business and human rights or Chip Pitts, CSR expert, Stanford University of Law Lecturer and UN Consultant. The general discussion included a wide range of opinions on the establishment of an international biding instrument. While members such as Algeria, Pakistan and South Africa stressed the importance of the Treaty in protecting human rights, others such as the Russian Federation and Switzerland commented that the duty to protect human rights should primary lie with the states themselves.

In the end, the EU chose not to block the work program but reiterated its reservations and asked that all its remarks would be recorded in the official report of the meeting. The Chair explained that the final meeting report will include all inputs from States, experts and CSOs alike.

ECCJ Conclusions

The discussions opened with an exciting first day. A strong division immediately emerged between the EU block and the other delegations. Substantial issues were raised right from the start during the debate on the IGWG agenda and work plan. Thankfully, the Chairperson’s diplomacy contributed to avoiding a clash. Despite its reservations, the EU did not block the process and allowed the agenda to proceed.

The real discussions, those on matters of substance, fuelled by civil society interventions, will start in full on the second day.

The EU will be present in the negotiation’s room on Tuesday as well, hopefully ready to stand up for stand up for human rights and engage in the process of developing much needed international corporate activity regulations.

Read our Day 2 summary

For more information on ECCJ’s position on the UN Treaty please consult the ECCJ Statement on the Geneva July meeting.

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