GA activists reflect on UN negotiations in Geneve

Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights: Considerations for a bumpy road ahead

Fighting for a binding treaty

This October Global Aktion, as part of the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and the Treaty Alliance, witnessed first-hand the pressing need for a critical and active civil society to mobilize for a UN Treaty to regulate corporate activities against human rights abuses and violations. The road ahead is not only long, but it will also be bumpy. 

While cases, where transnational corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises have been involved in human rights violations, are both abundant and well-documented. However, cases that have effectively prosecuted those responsible are a rare sight. In the past decade well-known TNCs such as Coca-Cola, H&M, and Mærsk, has been involved in several human rights violations. To name a few examples, Corpwatch has listed Coca-Cola in their top 14 “worst Corporate Evildoers”, as it “leads in the abuse of workers’ rights, assassinations, water privatization, and worker discrimination”, and Global Labor Justice has documented gender-based violence in H&M garment supply chains. Therefore, delegates from around the world met in Geneva this October for the 8th session of the Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) negotiating on a legally binding instrument (LBI) on TNCs and Other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights. The hope is that an UN-binding Treaty would finally put an end to corporate impunity and hold accountable those that violate human rights.

The potentials of a Binding Treaty

While multiple voluntary guidelines and regulations exist regarding business and human rights, no global legally binding instrument currently ensures corporations are held liable when their business activities -across the supply chain- violate human rights. Hence, corporations can only be held accountable for wrongful acts through national law. The cross-border nature of TNCs complicates the matter, as business activities take place in several States, different laws ought to be considered. Many business activities and Human Rights violations occur in the Global South, where nations’ laws may not always be adhered to a large range of factors. As a result, TNCs can operate in a legal vacuum where their violations go unpunished.

The road travelled: eight years later

In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a resolution drafted by Ecuador to create an open-ended intergovernmental working group (IGWG). For the last eight years, the Working Group, along with various civil society actors and academia have been developing an internationally recognized, legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of TNCs and other business enterprises. Civil society actors and academia have a critical role to play, advocating for those whose rights have been violated. Boaventura Monjane, the Coordinator of the Southern African Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC) clarifies:

“Our participation gives great legitimacy to the process. Our role over the past eight years has been critical in ensuring that the process has not stalled and that the content of the treaty has not been weakened.”

One step closer or two steps backward? 

This year, in the 8th session, States’ participation was higher than in previous sessions, highlighting the importance and relevance of the process. Countries from the Global South, particularly Palestine, South Africa, Namibia, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay, were especially active. From the Global North, the US was very active, commenting on specific articles. The European Union’s engagement remained limited, as it lacked a mandate from member States to negotiate as a bloc. It is therefore no longer a case of if there will be a binding treaty- but a case of when and with which outcome. While the active engagement of States is a positive step forward and signals that a binding treaty on Human Rights is in fact a reality, it also increases the risk of negotiating and later adopting a weaker and ineffective treaty. Civil society’s role is thus essential in the years to come.

Reaching the finish line

Only a strong binding treaty could hold TNCs and other business enterprises liable for human rights violations in their supply chains. While civil society is not able to make amendments to the draft proposals of the negotiations, it can engage and influence the process in various ways. Through, for example, lobbying and offering commentary when given the floor. Boaventura Monjane highlights civil society’s role:

“[We] must continue to do what it has always done best in this process: follow the negotiations, comment on the articles of the treaty text, support government missions interested in working with people’s perspectives, and influence public opinion on the importance and necessity of a binding treaty on transnational corporations.”

As negotiations create new momentum, we as a Civil Society must be present to keep States in check. To ensure the binding treaty puts an end to corporate impunity and protects people over profit.