Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Questions (43)

Róisín Shortall

Question:

43. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position of Ireland on the draft legally binding instrument to regulate in international law the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. [46682/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

My question relates to the need to progress the draft UN legally binding instrument to regulate international law and the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises in respect of human rights abuses. The figures that have been documented in recent years are concerning. There have been 2,000 attacks on activists since 2015. Last year alone, 321 human rights defenders were murdered. There is an urgent need to progress this instrument.

The question of a legally binding treaty to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises has been under consideration by an open-ended inter-governmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises, which was established on foot of a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2014. The working group has had five sessions to date, with the most recent having taken place in Geneva from 14 to 18 October 2019. It considered the revised draft text of a legally binding instrument which had earlier been circulated by Ecuador, the chair of the working group. Ireland was among those EU member states which advocated a greater engagement by the European Union in the process and I am pleased therefore that the EU participated and made statements at the opening and closing debates.

As the proposed treaty covers matters for which the EU is competent, it will be for the European Commission to negotiate on behalf of the EU and its member states. For my part, I am open to looking at options for progress on a legally binding treaty, which I believe should be firmly rooted in the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. I would like to see any new initiative build on, rather than duplicate, existing measures such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, guidelines for multinational enterprises and the International Labour Organization, ILO, tripartite declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy. Any new treaty would have to reaffirm the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights and stress the primary responsibility of states under existing human rights obligations to protect against human rights violations. I also believe that it would have to treat all economic operators, whether transnational or purely domestic, in a non-discriminatory manner.

Ultimately, if it is to achieve its objectives, any legally binding instrument should enjoy broad support among UN member states to ensure its effectiveness, as well as international coherence in the framework of business and human rights. On this point, I note that of the 22 countries which to date have adopted national plans on business and human rights, 16, including Ireland, are EU member states.

The Minister has repeated those lines a number of times in recent months. Does the Minister accept that there is a major gap in the regulation of corporate activities by states and in access to remedy for victims of human rights violations? The transnational or global nature of business has not been met with global regulation and binding measures.

A number of the points the Tánaiste has been making in recent times were addressed in that fifth session. He said Ireland wants the scope to cover domestic enterprises as well as transnational corporations, and that is included in the latest draft. He said the treaty must be rooted in the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and the latest draft does exactly that. He also said that to achieve its objectives, any legally binding instrument should enjoy broad support.

We need the EU to take the lead and Ireland should be leading the EU in that respect. Rather than everybody stepping back and expecting somebody else to give leadership, would the Tánaiste consider Ireland taking that step?

I would like to think we are already. No one is stepping back. As I said at the end of my response to the Deputy's previous question, of the 22 countries that have national plans on business and human rights, 16 of them are in the EU. The EU is trying to give leadership in this area. We have made the case that the EU should do more, although I would not say that was the only contributing factor to the EU making statements at both the start and end of the session. Many of the issues that require regulation in how transnational companies operate within the EU and the functioning of the Single Market have to be done at EU level by the European Commission. We will continue to advocate that the EU can do more. This has to be a global response or, otherwise, we will see certain parts of the world taking this seriously and other parts of the world not doing anything. That is why, ultimately, this needs to be a UN-led process with EU leadership driving the change that is needed. I am certainly happy that Ireland would be one of the leaders within the EU to try to deliver that change.

It is fair to say that Ireland has not led to date. Recently, in September, the Tánaiste said that officials in his Department were in the process of reviewing the draft to assess whether Ireland's wide-ranging concerns in respect of the earlier document had been addressed. When will this review by officials be available? He said Ireland will continue to work with other EU partners to look at how we might actively and constructively engage in the negotiation process. Can he outline how Ireland will take steps to actively and constructively engage in the negotiation process?

Ireland is trying to give leadership by example so that is why we have, at national level, a national action plan with a committee chaired by Breege O'Donoghue, formerly of Primark. That committee has met three times this year, in January, April and October, and the next meeting will take place in January. The key action of the implementation committee will be to develop a practical toolkit on business and human rights for private and public entities to assist them in their human rights due diligence. At international level, we will continue to engage when the meetings take place. We will raise issues when we need to and continue to try to move the process forward. That is how international platforms like this work.

When will the review be available?

I will get that detail and send it to the Deputy.