26.11.2015 | Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Treaty debate heats up at 2015 UN business and human rights forum

By Shane Darcy

The potential binding business and human rights treaty was a recurring issue for debate at the United Nations Business and Human Rights Forum, held in Geneva from 16 – 18 November. This annual event saw 2,300 attendees, representing States, business, civil society, academia and various international organisations, participate in numerous discussion panels and side events over three days touching on almost every aspect of the field of business and human rights. The Forum provides an opportunity to consider the numerous developments and projects in business and human rights and to assess overall progress in the field.

Several panels focused on the divisive subject of a business and human right treaty, an initiative which has been spearheaded by Ecuador. Human Rights Council Resolution 26/9 established an Intergovernmental Working Group, which met for the first time in 2015, with a mandate to “elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises”. This development has largely been welcomed by civil society, but countries such as the United States and the member States of the European Union, as well as business representative organisations, are opposed. The Forum provided an opportunity for the various protagonists to state their position on the proposed treaty.

Representatives of the United States intervened on several occasions on the subject of a business and human rights treaty, in what was considered a departure from a prior position of not participating strenuously in the debate. Keith Harper, the United States Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, expressed his country’s opposition to the treaty and described it as a “distraction” from the United Nations Guiding Principles. Ambassador Espinosa of Ecuador, and numerous other participants, expressed their view that the Guiding Principles and the proposed treaty should be seen as complementary processes. A representative of the United States speaking from the floor cheekily asked the Ambassador of Ecuador when her country would be issuing their national action plan on the Guiding Principles – the United States has yet to deliver its own national action plan. It was also asked what a treaty would achieve, given that reluctant States could not be compelled to become a State party.