UNITED NATIONS: ‘Outstanding issues on the binding treaty on business and human rights are mainly political’

Fernanda HopenhaymCIVICUS speaks with Fernanda Hopenhaym, chair of the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Business and Human Rights, about the process to develop a binding international treaty on business and human rights.

Why is a binding treaty on business and human rights so important?

The process to develop this treaty stems from the conviction that a legally binding instrument is needed to regulate the obligations of private companies and, above all, to facilitate access to justice for victims of their abuses. Its aim is to incorporate human rights protections in the context of business activity.

An international treaty would transcend the jurisdictional limitations of states. Transnational capital operates across borders. Huge numbers of companies in most sectors operate global supply chains. When abuses occur somewhere in these chains, it is very difficult for victims to access justice, as there are no justice mechanisms that transcend borders. Corporate operations are transnational but justice is not.

Of course, states must take measures at the domestic level, strengthen their regulations, improve their laws and develop public policy and action plans to ensure effective protection of human rights. And companies must also make commitments to improve their practices. The treaty under negotiation would be part of a package of measures that are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

The treaty process began in June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council established an open-ended intergovernmental working group mandated to negotiate and agree on an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises under international human rights law.

What role is the Working Group on Business and Human Rights playing?

The Working Group on Business and Human Rights is a UN special procedure, established by a 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council, with a mandate to promote, disseminate and implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, exchange and promote good practices and lessons learned from the implementation of the Guiding Principles, and assess and make recommendations on these. Its mandate has been successively renewed in 2014, 2017 and 2020. It is composed of five independent experts, mostly academics, and has balanced geographical representation. I have been a member of the Working Group since 2021. The other four current members are from Australia, Nigeria, Poland and Thailand. Three of the five of us are women.

While it does not have any decision-making authority over the Treaty, the Working Group plays an important role. We participate in almost all negotiating sessions through roundtables and discussions and we provide technical opinions. We have commented on the draft articles and we encourage the proactive participation of states from different regions of the world.

One of the premises of the Guiding Principles is the development of measures that can be combined in order to address the problems that exist in relation to the protection of human rights in the context of business activity. A legally binding instrument is just one of those necessary measures.

The Working Group has been very clear in sending out a message favourable to the treaty negotiation process.

What progress has been made in negotiating the treaty?

In the previous interview we had in 2018, the process had been going on for four years. At that time the fourth session of negotiations, based on the ‘zero draft’, was about to start in Geneva. And I was not yet part of the Working Group. Four more years have passed, and at the eighth session held in October 2022, the third draft, which emerged in advance of the 2021 negotiations, was discussed.

The pandemic affected the negotiation processes, partly because face-to-face contact was not possible for a long time. Representatives and delegates in Geneva, for example, were unable to meet in person for more than a year, so the possibilities for exchanges were severely limited. In turn, the pandemic affected the participation of civil society and other stakeholders in the discussions. Processes slowed down and therefore were extended.

Currently, the third draft is still being discussed, and Ecuador, which chairs the Intergovernmental Working Group, has apparently said that it will not bring yet another new draft to the table, but that changes, modifications and additions will continue to be made to this third draft. Eventually, all these adjustments will lead to a final draft.

The current draft has come a long way on issues such as acknowledging vulnerable groups, women, children and Indigenous peoples. Its scope, which was a very tough issue to negotiate, has also been clarified. In general, civil society’s position is to prioritise transnational corporations, while the current draft proposes that all companies should be under the umbrella of the treaty. The current draft reflects the position shared by our Working Group. A number of issues have been untangled, although there are still many things to be resolved.

What are the unresolved issues?

There are many discussions that are more political than technical. Some states and the private sector have said that the text is too prescriptive and rigid. Civil society has expressed that it wants more clarification and specificity on some issues such as the definition of the courts where cases covered by the treaty would be adjudicated and the consideration of the victims’ perspective, as the burden of proof remains a contentious issue. On this point the Working Group has been very clear: states have an obligation to facilitate access to justice and to remove barriers and obstacles for victims to access justice.

While the European Union (EU) and the USA participate in this process, they lack conviction on the direction of the text. The EU is very active, but I see divergent positions among its member states. Many countries, such as France, support it, but the EU as a whole maintains reservations.

One of the great triumphs of the early process was that China did not block it, but rather abstained. The same was true of India. This was partly because the treaty was supposed to be about transnational corporations. China has not approved of the extension of the treaty’s scope to all companies and has lately taken a more negative position.

African states have participated very little in the last two rounds of negotiations. We believe that South Africa, which was co-leader with Ecuador when the resolution that initiated the process was negotiated, is also unhappy with the expanded focus beyond transnational corporations. Ecuador has recently called for the formation of a ‘friends of the Chair‘ group and Africa is the only region without participating members.

Latin America in comparison is participating quite proactively, although the region has experienced many political changes, including in Ecuador itself, which are likely to influence negotiating positions.

In sum, there are ongoing technical discussions on the draft articles, but most of the outstanding issues are mainly political discussions. For this reason, I think the process will take several more years.

Do you think that the final version of the treaty will meet civil society expectations?

My hope is that we will not be left with a treaty that sets out good intentions without establishing clear rules. As is the case in all negotiations of this nature, some of the issues civil society is calling for will probably be left pending. There is a lot to accommodate: the perspectives of states, the expectations of business and the private sector in general, and the demands of civil society and all rights holders.

I would expect a pretty good text, which in some ways reflects the character of the process, which has included a very strong civil society and social movements. From my perspective, the process has been sustained not only by the commitment of states to negotiate, but also by the impetus of civil society and dialogue among all involved.

My expectations are intermediate. With some caution as to the scope of the articles, I think the treaty will contain some elements that satisfy civil society, and particularly victims.

What work will need to be done once the treaty is adopted?

To begin with, I think there is a long way to go before this treaty is adopted. It may still take several more years. There is a long way to go in the negotiations and regarding the content of the text.

Once the treaty is adopted, ratification will have to be pushed through. Let us remember that international treaties only enter into force when a certain number of states ratify them, and only those states that ratify them are bound by them. This is where I see a huge challenge ahead. Hopefully, once we get to produce a good, comprehensive text, the process of ratification will not be so slow and cumbersome.

For this to happen, we will need a strong civil society to push states to ratify the treaty so it enters into force and becomes binding on the signatory parties. Again, I would expect this process to be long and arduous, as the issue of human rights protection in the context of business is a thorny one, given that there are many interests at stake. What lies ahead will be a big challenge for all involved.


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