MUCH ADO ABOUT A TREATY ON BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

It is no longer news that some countries have initiated the process to establish a binding treaty to regulate the activities of transnational corporations under international human rights law. During the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, the Council adopted a resolution (drafted by Ecuador and South Africa) wherein it was decided to establish an ‘open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an internationally legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights’. The ‘open-ended intergovernmental working group’ held its first session between 6 and 10 July 2015 in Geneva. This process, which is still in its early stages, has generated a considerable debate.

But what exactly is the rationale behind continuing with a process that, from all indications, is a pointless exercise and a waste of time? To start with, most developed countries (where most of the transnational corporations that the treaty seeks to regulate are headquartered) do not support the process. Besides, it is clear that some developing countries are also seeking to protect their local businesses from the reach of the proposed treaty. In any case, let us even assume that these ‘defenders of the victims of corporate human rights abuses’ have their way and finally manage to secure a treaty, how is the treaty really going to help the victims of corporate human rights abuses if the treaty does not enjoy universal support?

As Professor John Ruggie has rightly stated:

“First, the ongoing treaty negotiations are likely to be slow and contested. Therefore, it is imperative that progress continue to be made on implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which the Council endorsed unanimously in June 2011 — and that civil society continues to invest time and energy to pressure governments and enterprises to do so. The available evidence suggests that where the UNGPs are implemented, the incidence of corporate-related human rights harm is reduced. Second, if there is to be any hope of further international legalization in the business and human rights domain, civil society needs to help by advancing workable proposals that states cannot ignore or dismiss out of hand — and which, therefore, have a chance of making a difference where it matters most: in the daily lives of people.”

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