Corporations have rights. Now we need a global treaty on their responsibilities
It’s been lively, to say the least. The debate over a binding international treaty on corporate human rights responsibilities has revealed deep divisions between the south – largely behind it – and Europe and other OECD member countries, which are staunchly opposed. In general, civil society groups support the negotiation of a treaty while business is, on the whole, against.
The debate began more than six months ago at the UN in Geveva and is unlikely to get much of a look-in at the World Economic Forum this year. But it should.
International, binding law on corporations and human rights is, I am convinced, the only effect way to tackle corporate abuse of rights — abuses Amnesty International documents week-in, week-out.
Some argue that no treaty is needed. They point out that the UN Human Rights Council already endorsed the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, published in 2011. And it is true that the principles should be a game-changer.
But the reality is that governments and businesses alike have failed to make the guiding principles meaningful. In the meantime, corporate lobbyists have done everything possible to ensure the principles remain entirely voluntary.
It is unsurprising then, that for the communities and individuals whose rights are violated, little has changed over the last three years.
The people whose homes have been demolished by a company’s bulldozers, or whose livelihoods are destroyed by oil spills, are as powerless as ever.
Confront any company with evidence it has breached the UN principles and you can almost see the bemusement. They are not binding, after all! Nor are the widely referenced, but equally poorly implemented, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
Amnesty International supports the development of a treaty on business and human rights because we believe states must fulfil their duty to protect people against all human rights abuses, including those caused by corporate abuse and negligence. That does not mean disregarding or dismantling the UN guiding principles. It means building on them and making key provisions of these mandatory.
A treaty could clearly set out what the state duty to protect means in the context of business operations, including with regard to parent and controlling companies of multinational groups active in more than one country.
It would help to standardise how states relate to business. At present, we regularly witness something close to blackmail from some businesses: regulate us in ways we don’t like and we will move elsewhere taking jobs (and your re-election chances) with us.
It can and should be different: business has the potential to be a force for good.
Businesses make a positive contribution to society, through job creation and the development of new medicines and technology that save or enhance the quality of lives.
But it matters whether the employees in these new jobs are protected from discrimination and danger in the workplace, and whether poor people have access to new medicine and technology.
A treaty should require each state to pass laws to make corporate human rights due diligence mandatory, and introduce sanctions and legal liability for companies that fail to act responsibly.
For example, in the case of Shell’s devastating Bodo oil spills in the Niger Delta, which destroyed thousands of livelihoods, a treaty could have obligated Nigeria and Shell’s home states – the UK and Netherlands – to have ensured much stronger environmental due diligence from Shell in the first place.
Despite opposition to a treaty on business and human rights, I am convinced of its importance and am committed to the campaign – which already has a groundswell of support from civil society globally.
Many critics argue it would be too complex. But with good will, skill and determination, complexity can be overcome.
When Amnesty International began its campaign for the Arms Trade Treaty more than 20 years ago, many people said it was impossible.
Yet the treaty became law on 24 December last year and it was worth the long haul.
The over-reaching, idealistic, supposedly naive idea of a treaty to stop companies and countries selling guns to people who would use them to commit atrocities is now widely accepted as an important part of the international human rights protection framework.
So, as I head to Davos this week, I will take my hopes for an international treaty on business with me, along with the thoughts of victims – from Bodo to the Rana Plaza to Bhopal. A law is not the solution to all of our problems, but it can be the start.
This Op-ed was first published in the Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network