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UN-draft binding treaty on human rights for transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

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Crude oil in an open toxic oil waste pit abandoned by Chevron in the Ecuadorean Amazon Rainforest near Lago Agrio. Photo by Caroline Bennett/Rainforest Action Network via Flickr.

The negotiation process towards a meaningful treaty on business and human rights has been underway since 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council. The process has been a slow one but the development and release of the draft treaty in July this year is a strong indication that there is a clear change coming to the world of business and human rights.

The need for a binding treaty which holds companies to account in their operations, particularly for operations in developing countries, has long been pushed by civil society organisations as the existing soft instruments (such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) do not have the required legal weight or binding force. It is largely acknowledged that Corporate self-regulation has failed. The local laws and deficient enforcement mechanisms in some countries mean that people affected by corporate human rights abuses have no access to effective grievance mechanisms. Companies and communities shown in our Dirty Profits report over time have shown the difficulties communities and individuals face in accessing compensation from corporate transnational companies such as Exxon, Chevron, Glencore, Barrick Gold and many others.

The draft treaty seeks to remedy this gap. The draft treaty notes that in order to prevent human rights violations, states must require their companies to exercise due diligence that includes for example meaningful consultations with potentially affected groups, public reporting on environmental and human rights and insurance to cover the costs of compensation. It also defines that companies will have to report on the human rights impacts of their business activities, including for subsidiaries and other entities. (Full article available under Article 9.2)

A further key element of the treaty is access to justice and states will need to guarantee victims “appropriate access to information”. Article 8 also notes that “States shall assist victims in overcoming such barriers, including through waiving costs where needed”.  This means that states should facilitate the development of a legal aid system for victims. (Full article available under Article 8 of the draft treaty)

Much of the treaty’s success will depend on states ratifying and pushing it forward. While there have been several comments and critiques on the draft treaty from Human Rights NGOs, particularly in relation to it being limited to businesses of a “transnational character”, the process and development of the treaty should be supported by states, although some have shown outright opposition to the process. The European Governments, including Germany, must have a cooperative attitude to the process, actively engage and encourage strong support for the process. In addition, companies should start to prepare themselves by ensuring that they are fully implementing the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights.

At the next working group (October 2018) the draft will be discussed. The European Governments, including Germany, have to take a cooperative attitude to the process and the adoption of the binding treaty. We, along with the treaty alliance (an alliance of committed networks and campaign groups in support of developing a binding treaty), call on all states to participate actively in the upcoming process and to ensure protection of human rights from the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. There is growing support for the treaty and the pressure that has been applied by NGOs and social movements has contributed significantly to the development of the draft. 

You can read the full text of the draft treaty here.