Sunday 23. January 2022
#222- January-February 2019

Business and human rights: Advancing labour standards and the binding UN Treaty

As 2019 begins, many signs on the horizon are calling us to reflect on society’s expectations towards business, and its global impact on people and nature.


In January, for many days, media attention focused on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In his 2018 message to the Forum, Pope Francis stated: “By rejecting a ‘throwaway’ culture with its mentality of indifference, the entrepreneurial world has enormous potential to effect substantial change by increasing the quality of productivity, creating new jobs, respecting labour laws, fighting against public and private corruption and promoting social justice, together with the fair and equitable sharing of profits.”  


Global business needs global rules


COMECE’s reflection paper “Shaping the future of work,” (November 2018), builds upon this positive vision. It looks how Europe can lay a foundation for future models of work based on dignity, sustainability and participation, both within the EU and globally. This is particularly important given the global nature of business today with its multinational corporate structures and the international supply chains.


According to COMECE’s paper, the EU needs to uphold international labour standards. It must become a global frontrunner in advocating, promoting and implementing them, with particular reference to the ILO Declaration on Multinationals and Social Policy and the on-going negotiations on a binding UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights. The European Commission should also systematically incorporate these labour standards into its Free Trade Agreements.

2019 will be a crucial year for negotiations, in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, for a binding UN Treaty, a process involving one hundred States.


Local communities under pressure


Local communities around the world are feeling increasing pressure from business activities. This is also true in the context of international trade and investment. In September, COMECE and CIDSE co-hosted in Brussels a high-level delegation from the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network presenting their Regional report on violations of human rights - the encroachments on lands by mining, agribusiness and logging companies, and the inadequacy of national legislation in protecting the rights of indigenous communities and workers.


These dynamics, and their implications for the region and for the planet, will be under the spotlight in 2019 as preparations advance towards the Rome Synod on the Amazon in October. In March the bishops of Latin America sent a powerful call expressing the need to care for our common home and in defence of the rights and territories of the communities. This includes communities’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, guaranteed by ILO convention 169.


How a UN Treaty could help


These realities show the clear need for further international action to ensure that businesses respect human rights and the environment. In June 2018, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN in Geneva issued a . in support of the Treaty.  


Among the key provisions under discussion in drafting the Treaty include the requirement of due diligence by companies to prevent negative impacts on human rights and the environment; ensuring access to justice for people; protecting the women and men standing up in defence of their rights and their territories; and ensuring the primacy of human rights in the context of trade and investment.    


Europe’s role


Support for the Treaty has come from over 150 academics, from the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions, and the European and global trade union federations have played a key role. In October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the EU to engage genuinely and constructively in the process. However, during the 2018 session in Geneva, EU States were mostly silent. Human rights defenders took the floor to call for provisions in the Treaty that could stop the threats and killings confronting them, but the EU failed to seize the occasion to support them.


Member States have not yet invested the level of analysis and expertise that will be necessary for the EU to make a real contribution to this future Treaty, which will impact European companies’ global operations. European States now need to get serious about this process and comment on the zero draft Treaty text by the February deadline, in view of the revised draft to come in June. They also need to prepare for negotiations in October next year. A EU that works to protect people’s rights and the public interest, rather than corporate profits and private interests, will be an important issue for citizens in the May EU elections. 


Denise Auclair

Senior Advisor, CIDSE


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.