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Austrian civil society calls for mandatory human rights due diligence

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Nowadays, Austrian corporations can get involved in human rights abuses with little or no consequences. This situation of impunity means that victims of corporate-related human rights abuses have little chance of claiming their rights or seeking compensation in courts for the harm suffered.

Austria is lagging behind when it comes to implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). It is one of the few EU Members which has not published a National Action Plan. 15 EU countries have already NAPs in place, while there are ongoing processes to adopt plans in other five countries.

In order to put developments – or rather, the lack thereof -  in an international perspective, the Austrian Network on social responsibility of corporations (NeSoVe) organised a conference in Vienna last 19 September.

ECCJ coordinator Claudia Saller highlighted legislative developments taking place in other European countries, such as the French "devoir de vigilance" law, the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, the UK Modern Slavery Act or Germany’s official commitment to consider HRDD legislation if companies don’t implement it on a voluntary basis. She regretted the Austrian EU presidency’s failure to promote a strong approach on Business and Human Rights, which could have been a positive contribution to EU policy making, serving people and the environment. She pointed to the need for consistent European HRDD legislation covering all sectors.

Stefan Grasguber-Kerl, from the development organisation Südwind, addressed the discussion from the perspective of the garment sector. Building on concrete case-studies such as the Rana Plaza scandal, he explained how corporate liability could improve working conditions and ensure safety for workers.

Brasilian trade unionist Daniel Machado Gaio illustrated the need for corporate accountability with the example of the Mariana case. The speaker explained that corporate negligence had caused the collapse of the Bento Rodrigues dam, producing a flood of toxic waste which destroyed an entire village. This incident has been described as the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history.

Lastly, Sabine Stelczenmayr, from the Austrian confederation of trade unions, emphasised the need for close cooperation of civil society in order to attain binding legislation against inhumane working conditions everywhere in the world.

The currently ongoing process for a UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights was discussed as a possible regulatory tool to end corporate abuse. Speakers agreed that in combination with effective national and European legislation, such a Treaty could effectively help holding corporations to account.

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