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We need a binding treaty to to end corporate impunity

Negotiations on a legally binding instrument were recently held in Geneva. If adopted, the instrument will make companies legally liable for human rights abuses in their supply chains, and represent an important step in establishing the accountability of corporations in international law. Before the negotiations, global unions welcomed the release of the draft text, while stressing that worker’s rights are human rights. Unions welcomed the integration of a gender perspective, as well as measures for addressing accountability gaps in the structures of multinationals.

Unions criticize the instrument for not talking explicitly about workers’ human rights, and for not recognizing trade unionists as human rights defenders, or unions as an integral part of human rights due diligence processes.

During the negotiations, the International Organization of Employers and other business lobby groups found fault with every draft provision, and attempted to obstruct the process. The US government rejected the process, the UK challenged the content of the draft text, and the EU was unable to achieve a negotiating mandate from its member states. This round of negotiations concluded without significant developments, and will continue next year.

Human rights campaigners, civil society groups and unions have long campaigned for changes to international and domestic law that would hold companies accountable for their actions in other jurisdictions. These campaigns are starting to bear fruit: at the domestic level, Switzerland will hold a referendum on corporate social responsibility in November 2020, while similar legislation is being proposed or has already passed in other countries.

Internationally, campaigners won an important victory at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2014, when the resolution was first adopted to develop the international legally binding instrument. Resolution 26/9 established an Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) to develop the details of that instrument in a series of negotiations. The sixth session of the IGWG was held in Geneva last week.

The UNHRC is made up of member states. Ecuador and South Africa proposed the 2014 resolution. Many Western governments voted against it. Progress is dependent on the negotiating positions of the member states. For this reason, unions believe that it is important to keep up the pressure on national governments, to prevent the draft text from being watered down.

Despite objections, a final report was adopted and the parties will move towards negotiations on the text. The IGWG will compile and distribute documents that address the issues raised in the negotiations by March 2021.

Photo by Stig Berge (CC0 1.0)


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