Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Business and Human Rights: Discussion
We are joined by Ms Siobhan Curran, policy and advocacy adviser with Trócaire, Mr. Ed O'Donovan, head of protection, Front Line Defenders, and Ms Mary Lawlor, adjunct professor, school of business in Trinity College Dublin, TCD, and founder of Front Line Defenders, to discuss business and human rights. The witnesses are welcome. This matter was identified by the committee as a priority for consideration and we are delighted to have such experts in the field to share their views with the committee. The format of the meeting is that we will hear the opening statements before having a question and answer session with the members of the committee.
Before proceeding with the business of the meeting, I remind members and people in the Public Gallery that their mobile telephones should be switched off or put on airplane mode for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even if on silent mode, with the recording equipment in committee rooms.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Ms Curran to make her opening statement. She will be followed by Mr. O'Donovan and Ms Lawlor.
Ms Siobhan Curran:
I thank the Chairman and committee for the invitation to speak today. I look forward to the discussion and to answering any questions members might have.
Trócaire is campaigning on business and human rights in response to widespread reports of corporate human rights abuses in the communities in which we work, including the displacement of communities, violent evictions, pollution of land and destruction of livelihoods, which have a disproportionate impact on indigenous communities and women. For example, in Myanmar at present, 7,000 people risk being displaced due to the planned construction of dams on the Tanintharyi River, while the livelihood of a further 22,000 people is at risk, not to mention the environmental impacts. The communities have not been consulted, yet their lives will be irreversibly impacted if the transnational corporations proceed with these developments. In Honduras, the indigenous Tolupanes community is facing relentless threats and attacks for protecting its forest from logging companies. This community has lost over 100 defenders in the protection of its lands. These are just two examples, but the trend we are observing is that those who question and resist the destruction of their lands and communities are facing brutal consequences, including killings, attacks, criminalisation and repression.
The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the data on disappearances, killings and assassinations as a horror story. Many of these defenders are indigenous people who are defending our environment and their protection benefits all of us. Despite the adverse human rights impacts that corporations can have in communities, there is a major gap in the regulation of corporate activities by states and in access to remedy for victims. Transnational corporations, in particular, use complex legal structures to avoid accountability. Corporations operate across borders and it can be very difficult to attribute responsibility to parent companies. Companies can profit from operating in countries where laws guaranteeing human rights or environmental standards do not exist or are not adequately enforced. This must be addressed. Global regulation has largely developed in the form of voluntary guidance, which is not being implemented.
In recognition of this gap, the UN intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises was established in 2014 to elaborate a legally binding treaty to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. This UN treaty could address the global governance gap and create a level playing field for businesses with respect to human rights. The latest draft of the treaty published in July 2019 has addressed the previous concerns of Ireland and the EU, including the scope of the instrument, which is now not limited to transnational corporations, and alignment with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Given that the concerns have been addressed by the chair of the UN working group, we recommend that Ireland support the UN treaty, develop a public position on it and push for EU support and for an EU negotiation mandate for the sixth session in October 2020 in Geneva.
Along with the UN treaty at global level, following France's adoption of a duty of vigilance law in 2017, other countries are now adopting or discussing mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation. We wish to see Ireland being part of this trend. Such legislation would establish a corporate duty to respect human rights and would require that companies identify, assess and act to prevent and address human rights abuses and environmental harm across their activities and value chain. It would also hold companies legally accountable and provide justice for victims. This is in line with the independent baseline assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework on business and human rights that was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and published last March. It recommends that the State consider the adoption of mandatory human rights due diligence and that this be a minimum requirement for State companies.
The European Commission has initiated a study on the regulatory options that could be pursued at EU level. That is essentially the foundation for an EU directive on human rights and environmental due diligence. We recommend that Ireland support this. To recap, stronger regulation is needed to provide a legal framework to ensure corporations do not violate human rights in their operations. Voluntary guidelines are not enough. We call for regulation to be developed at the global, EU and national levels and for Ireland to play a part in each element of that.
Mr. Ed O'Donovan:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak this morning. I work with Front Line Defenders, an Irish organisation that works to support and protect human rights defenders who are at risk around the world. There are many causes of the risks faced by peaceful activists but, as Ms Curran pointed out, the sector of human rights work which is most dangerous is work on the defence of land rights, indigenous people’s rights and environmental rights. Unfortunately, the threats and dangers often result in the killing of human rights defenders. These frequently take place in the context of big business or mega projects where defenders objecting to environmental degradation or corruption, or indigenous communities objecting to the appropriation of their land, are targeted in an effort to silence them and their communities.
The role of business and the need for states, including Ireland, to do more has already been addressed. To add to this, I wish to bring in the role played by development finance institutions, DFIs, that fund or part-fund many of the projects where violence is being carried out against those who stand up for the rights of others. Occasionally, the DFIs will even be shareholders of the companies behind the project. While development interventions can be a powerful tool for the realisation of human rights, too often activities undertaken in the name of development fail to adequately consider human rights conditions and impacts and end up exacerbating the risks faced by human rights defenders, who are arrested, smeared, attacked and killed. The most infamous case in this regard was the murder of Honduran human rights defender, Berta Cáceres, who was killed in 2016 for defending the territory and rights of the indigenous Lenca people in the face of a dam being built, which was being funded by the Dutch and Finnish development banks.
Despite numerous previous threats and attacks against Ms Cáceres, the respective banks did not respond adequately. In November of last year a Honduran court convicted employees of the company which was constructing the dam of Ms Cáceres's murder, although the intellectual authors have not been apprehended.
While Ireland does not have a national development bank, it does have a voice in the strategic direction of a number of multilateral development banks, including the European Investment Bank, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as a shareholder and funder. We fully recognise Ireland's supportive position on human rights defenders but it is concerning that we may be partially undermining these efforts through the actions of the DFIs in which we participate. At present, DFIs are failing to assess adequately the risks and are too slow to act, if they act at all, when informed that threats have been made against local communities for peacefully opposing a project. They tend to be too quick to accept the word of their local project partners that human rights defenders are "criminals" or "violent" or that the arrests and killings that take place are totally unrelated to their work in the context of the project. Threats and attacks often start with the labelling of communities, groups and individuals as "anti-development". The imposition of development activities without the consent or meaningful consultation of local communities and marginalised groups is one of the root causes of threats to human rights defenders in this context. At Front Line Defenders, we have documented numerous such cases over recent years and have been trying to engage with DFIs as part of a wider campaign for them to raise their human rights standards.
This leads me to the question of what Ireland can do to push these banks to be better in this area. We believe that Ireland, in line with its supportive position on human rights defenders more generally, should take the lead in urging banks from within to develop policies on human rights defenders and protocols to prevent and respond to risks of reprisals and to ensure meaningful access to information, robust, free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and consultation with other affected communities. We believe it is essential that DFIs conduct ongoing human rights due diligence to identify and address human rights risks in all their activities. They must ensure effective mechanisms whereby defenders can safely alert them to deteriorating environments or risks of conflict and reprisal. DFIs must look to take measures to prevent any form of retaliation against defenders who might come under threat in a project in which they have invested and must set up a protocol to respond to any retaliation if and when it occurs.
Finally, I encourage the committee to ask the Government to update it regularly on measures it is taking as a shareholder to ensure DFIs act in line with Ireland's supportive position on human rights defenders.
Ms Mary Lawlor:
I thank the committee for having us. The Trinity centre for social innovation, located in the Trinity business school, seeks to make a positive impact on society and the environment through engagement, research, innovation and teaching.
Following the adoption of the UN guiding principles on business and human Rights and Ireland's national action plan, the centre has conducted research over the past year to establish a basic understanding of where Irish companies stand on these principles and the objectives in the plan. A random sample of 22 Irish-domiciled publicly listed companies with more than 500 employees and generating more than 50% of their revenue outside Ireland were examined using their published policies and reports. The assessment was conducted using the corporate human rights benchmark. The context to this, as I said, was the guiding principles. There are 31 principles in all. They apply to all business enterprises and address the risks of adverse impacts on human rights from business activities. They centre on three pillars, namely, the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and access to remedy. Following publication of the plan in 2017, the Government commissioned an independent baseline assessment of Ireland's legislative and regulatory framework concerning business and human rights. There is also an EU non-financial reporting directive, under which companies are required to report on the development, performance, position and impact of their activity relating to respect for human rights, among other matters. The trouble is that companies can cause harm, either directly or by colluding with others who abuse human rights. There are few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent companies from violating human rights or to hold them to account. Victims affected by their operations are left powerless in the face of extreme attack. We have heard from both Ms Curran and Mr. O'Donovan in this regard.
The 22 companies we researched were from the healthcare, food products, consumer discretionary, energy, and technology, hardware and equipment sectors. These sectors are listed in my written submission. What is important is that we only examined publicly available documentation, that is, the reports and other relevant documents which the companies had produced. They were examined against the three pillars. The first was governance and policy commitments; the second, embedding respect and human rights due diligence; and the third, remedies and grievance mechanisms. The overall finding was that no company among the sample scored greater than 42% when measured under the methodology. If members look at the table titled "Results by scoring board" in my written submission, they will see that ten companies got less than 10%, which is not very impressive. We found that the results demonstrated particularly low levels of engagement with theme B, namely, embedding respect and human rights due diligence. All of us here are looking for mandatory human rights due diligence and environmental due diligence. This involves identifying and assessing the actual and potential human rights impacts of a company's operations through an ongoing process. It requires that companies integrate the findings of due diligence into their internal processes, monitor the effectiveness of measures implemented to mitigate risks, and communicate their findings and actions to interested stakeholders. We also found there was no formal addressing of access to remedy of adverse impacts and the incorporation of lessons learned in policies or reports.
We are looking for a number of things from the various political parties ahead of the next general election. First, we echo the call for Ireland to become more active in the negotiations on the proposed UN treaty on business and human rights. It is fully in line with Ireland's commitments to the UN and to its position on human rights defenders being a priority for the Irish Government, so there is nothing strange about it. Second, we are looking for mandatory human rights due diligence. We accept that this will not happen overnight, so we would like to see the State - bodies controlled by the State - lead by example in putting in place robust, mandatory due diligence. This would not require new law. I can tell the committee after my presentation how it can be done but it is an easy thing to do and would ensure that the State give a lead and would create awareness among companies of their obligations.
It is so good that the three witnesses are here to present, and I acknowledge the work all three have done.
It is obvious that the awards that Front Line Defenders give every year, and in which some of us are involved, really highlight the difficulties and challenges human rights defenders face. The point has been made that the awards and nominations create an awareness and perhaps a somewhat safer environment because the world is watching. Most recently we met Abelino Chub Caal, who received the Romero award, through Trócaire. These are small drops in a very big ocean but are excellent initiatives.
It presents a stark reality of life for human rights defenders, as well as the absolute need that human rights for business have to be legally binding with mandatory due diligence. There is no question about that. It is disappointing that the baseline assessment from our group is mainly voluntary and the recommendations are not binding.
On Tuesday, I asked a parliamentary question of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this issue and in his response, he stated the recommendations made will be considered by the business and human rights implementation group and there is a suggestion that consideration be given to the adoption of mandatory human rights due diligence. Using the term “consideration” is a bit weak. We need the language to be stronger than that. When I asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on Trócaire’s suggestion about consultation, he said, “My Department has undertaken to convene a forum on business and human rights within two years of adoption of the plan." That is ludicrous.
Ms Lawlor's report, which I saw last Friday, is comprehensive. It is also damning of companies in this country. It is indicative that lipservice has been paid in some cases and in others it is not even lipservice. On the corporate human rights benchmark methodology which Ms Lawlor used, did she engage with our national plan? It took a long time to come and there has been much disappointment with it because it was a watered-down version of what it should have been. Is there any sort of engagement there? Ms Lawlor is showing the way forward. How are we going to get there? The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Tuesday that the implementation group met three times but it is very quiet. It is not out there telling those companies what they need to do. How confident is Ms Lawlor that our national plan and our implementation group are robust enough to bring about real difference? At the recent meeting of the UN intergovernmental working group, the point was made that Spain and France made interventions but Ireland was quiet. I got the impression from the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade that he wants to be more proactive. What is keeping him away from that? Will we get to the ten features outlined in the position paper of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice, ECCJ?
Ms Mary Lawlor:
It is good that we have a plan. Some 16 member states have adopted national action plans and there are moves across Europe for more. Business and human rights will not go away. It is becoming more important and is recognised as such. It is good that we have a plan, the baseline study and the business and human rights implementation group.
The plan started in 2017 but the implementation group was only set up and met for the first time this year. It is early days. However, we have not seen, as yet, a rigorous attempt by the business and human rights implementation group to integrate the UN guiding principles into its work and to measure the principles in the plan. There has been no talk of human rights due diligence, as far as I am aware. I am not on the committee but Ms Curran is. I made a presentation to it several weeks ago.
The State, in all its activities and all companies to which it is giving contracts, should put in these conditions. Looking at the procurement page, it would be simple to establish a principle that all Government contracts include a condition that bidders must demonstrate compliance with the UN guiding principles. This could be done through the Office of Government Procurement and implemented in stages. Perhaps first it could require companies provide a statement, unverified in the beginning, as to their compliance. Later it could be demonstrated through independent verification. That could involve exceeding an minimum score in the benchmark.
The first point, however, is that companies are unaware of their obligations under the UN guiding principles. They really do not have a clue. If the State put in place such an amendment to procurement contracts, it would create awareness. Companies would obviously have to comply to get a Government contract. This would then be a lead. As we know, small things lead to bigger things. These could be assessed and, hopefully over time, human rights and environmental due diligence would become mandatory. It will never come by itself. The only way is to develop a process by which eventually companies will comply properly.
Ms Siobhan Curran:
Trócaire is a member of the implementation group, which consists of Departments, NGOs and business community representatives. The group has met three times but it has yet to gain momentum and we have yet to see major outputs from it. We remain hopeful that the work of the group will proceed and we will start to see such outputs.
What we need in the first instance is a clear roadmap from Departments as to how the national plan will be implemented. It really is not civil society which has the power to do that. Unless we see those roadmaps from Departments, it will be difficult to see how the plan could be implemented. The second part is the actual plan itself. As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned, it is weak. That needs to be improved. We are nearly at 2020. One can imagine a process to revise the plan will start at some point.
There are useful elements within the plan but the mandatory human rights due diligence is not yet part of that. If we were to prioritise one action which Ireland could proceed with, it is mandatory human rights due diligence. Ms Lawlor has outlined the steps towards that. The other important point is the implementation group does not in any way discuss the UN treaty to regulate transnational corporations. That has been kept outside of this implementation group. We would prefer to see it as part of it, as it is a business and human rights forum or space, but it has not been.
Ms Siobhan Curran:
Yes. The only mandate of the group is to discuss issues which are in the national plan. The treaty is not seen as part of that. It would be positive if we could get a clear indication of how the baseline study will be implemented into the work of the group. That is not clear to us as a member.
On the statement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade about Ireland becoming more engaged in the UN treaty process, that is welcome. It would be great to see the tangible steps that would take. Pushing within the EU is extremely important. We must also remember that we are also a member state in our own right and we have to develop our position on issues of domestic competency. It would also be useful for us to see Ireland’s position in the areas of EU competency and what Ireland will be pushing.
I welcome all the witnesses. On behalf of members, I thank the witnesses for the important work they are doing in this area. Increasingly, the whole area of business and human rights is a global issue.
These are people whose lives are threatened and whose homes are being destroyed. Ms Curran mentioned some of the countries where people are being displaced. Increasingly, it is becoming more the work of our committee to hear from witnesses making representations on behalf of such people.
I agree that we need a binding United Nations treaty to deal with business and human rights, as well as mandatory rights and environmental due diligence legislation to ensure that businesses respect human rights across their activities. I agree with the idea that state companies, and particularly Irish State companies, need to give the lead on that. It makes so much sense that each Department would roll that out. I cannot understand the reluctance to make that change or why we are slow in making that change. Is it just that there is not enough pressure being put on or does it relate to Government policy? Are ideological reasons the cause of this slowness to change because people do not want to interfere with the conditions for businesses investing in Ireland and so on? Will our guests elaborate on this?
I have raised a clear example on a number of occasions, both here and with the Tánaiste, regarding the Cerrejón mine in Colombia and the impact it is having on local people. Those affected are mostly indigenous people and women in particular. They are the target for many of these groups. We hear of things happening abroad but we have an example of some of the threats in the recent torture of Mr. Kevin Lunney of Quinn Industrial Holdings. It gave some insight into the type of pressure being applied. That is a separate matter but what those company directors have gone through because of criminality has been made clear. Our guests mentioned some of the pressure exerted on human rights defenders. They can be charged with criminal acts and so forth or detained for long periods in many cases. Some have been detained for years. We are told if a trade unionist is killed in Colombia that it is nothing to do with the fact he or she was a trade unionist. We might be told it was a family dispute or a local argument. It is an effort to try to dismiss that the act arose because of a person's work on human rights.
Some 90% of the coal used in the Moneypoint power station comes from Cerrejón. On the one hand, we are saying we should move forward while at the same time a State company like the ESB is buying coal, the mining of which is having an impact on the indigenous people there. We had some human rights defenders before the committee who told us their lives are under threat. They live in the area and highlight the pollution there, the lack of clean water and people being forced off their land. The company is buying land at ridiculous prices and in many countries people may not have a legal document for that, which brings its own problems.
Are our guests of the view that the Government or semi-State companies should carry out human rights evaluations? How should that be driven forward? We have heard the human rights committee that has been established has met three times. Does it have a role in this area? Would our committee have a role? What should we be doing differently with this, particularly in the context of the companies based in Ireland? Many of us are extremely critical of Ireland's current corporate tax code, particularly as it is clear that Ireland is a haven being used by multinational companies to avoid paying tax in other countries. Do our guests believe that some of the companies domiciled in Ireland for tax purposes may have connections to serious human rights violations? They mentioned a survey and violations in supply chains. If the State is not complying with what is clear Government policy, are we expecting too much of the companies to do so? How can we put pressure on them? Our guests mentioned that voluntary guidelines are not enough and this must be something set in law. Should there be greater legislation coming from the Oireachtas rather than the United Nations?
Work has long been under way on a binding United Nations treaty on business and human rights. Again, there does not seem to be any real urgency about that. Should Ireland play the same leading role that we did with regard to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons? Is that the type of championing our guests would like to see Ireland involved in? There is a lukewarm response to the matter so I am keen to dig into the reasons. We have raised questions with the Tánaiste in the Chamber and he always has a positive message but we are not seeing this filtering through Departments, etc. What is the view of our guests on the Government's approach to negotiations for the treaty to date? What changes would they like to see adopted?
There is a national plan on business and human rights from 2017 to 2020. It was launched to great fanfare but it appears that every date the Government set as a target was not met. What more would the witnesses like to see with that plan? Do we need a plan to run from 2021 to 2025? I am keen to know what role our committee should play in this. Should we invite representatives of that human rights business group before us? It is newly established and has had three meetings but I do not really have a sense of the work it does. Do our guests have some guidelines in the context of what we, as legislators and parliamentarians, should be doing?
Ms Siobhan Curran:
On the issue of reluctance to change, Ireland has taken many of its positioning cues from the European Union, which has opposed the United Nations treaty and any legally binding regulation for corporations. The view of civil society is that European Union companies are headquartered here and there is a risk of losing them because of this type of regulation. We must also consider the power of the corporate lobby. Ireland has taken the position of the European Union until now and when we ask about Ireland's position on the treaty, the messages have been somewhat positive, as the Deputy noted, but the opposition has been around issues of scope and the United Nations guiding principles.
With regard to scope, Ireland's opposition comes from the fact that the treaty does not cover domestic enterprises. Taking that to its conclusion, one might assume that Ireland wants domestic legislation for corporations, so we must push that issue. Now that the treaty has been revised, the two elements cited by Ireland as concerns have been addressed. Now is the moment when we need Ireland to be very vocal in support of the treaty. We welcome the Tánaiste saying he is open to progressing this within the European Union but a very definitive statement of position from Ireland in support of the treaty would be very useful. It would also be very useful if Ireland could look at the steps that the United Nations chair of the intergovernmental working group outlined from the last session, when comments on the draft treaty and a national stakeholder consultation were requested.
There are very practical things Ireland can do. The resistance we have heard from Ireland to corporate regulation has not been that we do not want to regulate business but it has been these other arguments. More information on that would be good because if there is another concern, and if it is because of companies residing in Ireland, that would be useful to know. Ms Lawlor’s research is the first to examine in a more systematic manner the extent to which businesses are incorporating human rights into their activities. We need further research and, ultimately, we need to take a systematic approach to this.
The national implementation group on business and human rights is a space which, hopefully, will become more active. We need legislation on human rights and environmental due diligence to be developed. We also need Ireland to take a very obvious lead on the treaty. Ireland could have a niche and a space in relation to gender and civil society space. It is known on the UN Human Rights Council as a champion of civil society space. Civil society and human rights defenders are calling for this treaty, so it is a very obvious space in which Ireland could operate. I hope I have answered the questions.
Ms Siobhan Curran:
When the Tánaiste launched the national plan on business and human rights originally, he said they would like an approach where businesses would be brought along, so businesses would implement human rights due diligence but there would not be legislation on this. It is more of a partnership approach, I suppose. That is a view many people and states have. Our view is that it is not working and it is simply not enough. That is okay for the businesses that are violating human rights and just running roughshod over this lack of regulation, and what we are seeing across Europe is businesses calling for more regulation - those who are not profiting from human rights violations, which they call levelling the playing field. This is something that more and more businesses are in support of as well.
Mr. Ed O'Donovan:
To address Deputy Crowe's question on what the committee can do, I think it can continue to highlight the disconnect between Ireland's generally very supportive stance on human rights defenders and the programmes it has in place to provide protection and support to human rights defenders and, as I mentioned, the very apparent fact that the most dangerous sectors for people to work in are the fields of business, mega-projects and extractive industry. At Front Line Defenders, we collect data every year on the number of attacks and people being killed and the vast majority are those working in those sectors. Last year, for instance, we documented more than 300 people being killed, and this year it is going to be a very similar number, if not higher. While on the one hand, as Ms Curran mentioned, Ireland is well known at the UN Human Rights Council and internationally as having this supportive stance on the civil society space and human rights defenders, on the other hand, one of the key causes of diminishing civil society space is the power of unregulated business and the attacks which have a knock-on impact on communities. They exercise a chilling effect. It dissuades more people from getting involved in civil action and in rights defence when their colleagues and family members are being killed, threatened and smeared. Companies are often involved in these smear campaigns. At Front Line Defenders we analyse these types of campaigns and we have data which show that when people are killed, it is very rarely a one-off attack. It often starts with a threat or a smear campaign, and then it escalates when nothing is done about it. This is one of the reasons Front Line Defenders is supportive of greater regulation and a United Nations-binding treaty on business and human rights.
Ms Mary Lawlor:
I echo what Ms Curran and Mr. O'Donovan said, because we have seen over the years the appalling attacks and killings of human rights defenders. It is true that Ireland has the priority of civil society space in the resolution at the United Nations. The stars align for Ireland to be doing more on the United Nations treaty, and when it comes to business in Ireland. It is not all out there. I was in the Sperrins yesterday. There is a Canadian gold mining company there, which has a prospector licence at the moment. There has been no environmental protection assessment and no planning permission as yet, but there are already signs of significant intimidation by people, although we do not know by whom, including a death against someone. The Sperrins are near Omagh. If one looks at the case of San Leon, there is a complaint by the Global Legal Action Network, GLAN, to the OECD contact person regarding its activities in Western Sahara. It is not all about what is happening out there, because we know in our human rights work the local, the international and the regional all come together, and it is economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.
For us, it is important there is more than a declaration and a commitment by Ireland to human rights and environmental due diligence, first of all by the State in all its activities with whatever companies - semi-State companies and the other companies with which it does business - because that is something that can be done now without any legislation. The next thing, as Ms Curran said, is legislation. The role of this committee is to push for that as well. We all know how politics works. If it is not something that is really important to the day-to-day business and is a bit removed, it does not get attention. It does not mean that people are bad. It just means that it is not a priority, and the only way to make it a priority is to have mandatory human rights and environmental legislation. It will not happen by itself, and companies, as was rightly pointed out, have no appetite for it for many reasons. Part of it is that they just do not know.
One of the things I think should happen next is for an organisation like the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which does training with governments and companies, to do some training on how to put in place mandatory human rights due diligence, on what is necessary and on what it involves. Until it happens, we could be here in three years saying the same stuff.
The witnesses are all very welcome and I thank them for the very clear presentations. I commend them on the great work they are all doing in continuing to highlight this. Ms Lawlor is absolutely right about politics and priorities, and that is a huge issue. An important part of the work of this committee is continuing to keep a focus on issues like protection of human rights defenders. It has been a pleasure to work with Front Line Defenders on the awards. They also play an important role in highlighting and raising awareness. I also want to thank Trócaire for the great report, Making A Killing, which provides really useful information on all of this.
I have two specific questions. We take on board what the witnesses said about what the committee should be doing to press the Tánaiste on this and to ensure that there is effective and speedier implementation of the national plan and that we see results. Something everyone referred to is that companies generally in Ireland are unaware of the plan or of the soft obligations in the plan. Are there any proposals from the implementation group to raise awareness? Is there any communications strategy? If not, what sort of communications strategy would be effective? I imagine the research Ms Lawlor conducted would have had an effect in raising awareness among those 22 companies. What else can be done to raise awareness, and can this committee do anything on that specific point?
Reference has been made to the fact that Ireland is one of 16 member states that has a plan. France has gone further with legislation. Is there another model of best practice when we communicate with the Tánaiste? Can we cite instances where there has been a change in behaviour and increased and enhanced protection of human rights because companies have been made aware and have obligations? Is France the best model? Is there anywhere else that we can point to? If so, what else are they doing that we can learn from?
Ms Siobhán Curran:
On the national plan and plans to raise awareness among businesses, as of yet the plans have not been articulated. Working groups on the national plan are due to be set up but they have not been established yet. I imagine that the second working group, which focuses on businesses, would plan to do that. One of the recommendations in this plan is a human rights due diligence toolkit that would provide guidance for businesses. There is no communications plan around it. A recommendation to the implementation group could be to increase the communication around it, and if it is to facilitate events, then to facilitate training with the Danish institute but I would be wary. There are many toolkits on human rights due diligence and we need to be careful that we are not coming a bit late to the table with too little. Other countries are developing strong legislation and they are way ahead of us. There is a bit of catching up and being part of the trend to be done, which relates to the second question asked by the Senator.
France has led the way with its duty of vigilance law and the Swiss are in the process of developing human rights due diligence law. Ireland is part of the European network. The trend across Europe now is to develop this legislation, and more so in western Europe. Our civil society partners in Belgium are saying that their government is also considering this. They are considering a hybrid of the best parts of the French and Swiss proposals. We are in a great position because there is so much thinking going on about this throughout Europe. We are part of these networks and we can pull from the best legislation. We can learn from the French plan and even improve on it. The trend is going in the direction of more regulation and we should be part of that.
Mr. Ed O'Donovan:
In addition to the legislation development that Ms Curran mentioned, a handful of companies have prioritised the issues of human rights, civil society space and human rights defenders and have fully engaged. Adidas, for instance, developed a human rights defenders policy a number of years ago and it has gone out to bat on behalf of workers detained for trying to unionise. Adidas has also had meetings with Vietnamese government officials in those contexts. Marks & Spencer's has developed a policy on human rights defenders. There are examples for companies to model themselves on and replicate. These lead to substantive change given the leverage that they have. We should think about this aspect a little more when we negotiate with companies and urging them to take steps that point towards best practice, which is out there.
Ms Mary Lawlor:
I am thinking of the companies that are committed to human rights due diligence in a serious way. Sometimes one finds that there is a disconnect between corporate social responsibility and business and human rights. Corporate social responsibility is all about the company doing good things for the community in which they operate from the bottom down. Whereas the business and human rights approach uses the three pillars - the State, the company and the access to remedy. The State is very important in this because it is key lever to get its own house in order and for companies to become more aware of the UN guiding principles and how they should implement human rights due diligence. What the Senator said about communicating is important. We analysed 22 companies and our research will continue.
Ms Mary Lawlor:
The research will become a better developed programme within the business school, and teaching is going to start happening and stuff like that.
We wrote to all of the companies. We got a few responses that were not hostile but most of the companies did not respond. As the Senator said there is a huge job to be done in communicating to companies the UN guiding principles, what is human rights due diligence and why it is in their interest. We have conducted further research on the other EU directive on non-financial reporting about investing. Earlier Mr. O'Donovan talked about the issue of the IFIs. Over time where there are institutions it is in the interest of companies to get involved in human rights due diligence. It would be terrific and we would be very grateful if the committee took this on.
I thank the witnesses for their responses. Along with colleagues, I welcome the excellent presentations on this important area of business and human rights. We applaud Mr. Curran and Mr. O'Donovan, their colleagues in Trócaire and the Human Rights Defenders and, indeed, other NGOs, who do excellent work in this important area.
It is also heartening to have Mary Lawlor, with her background, working in the centre for social innovation in TCD business school, as Senator Bacik mentioned. The TCD research gave us a clear message that these issues need to be addressed nationally as well as internationally.
I believe that most people are not aware that human rights work is at its most dangerous when defending land rights, indigenous people's rights and environmental rights. Irresponsible business practices cannot be tolerated. Business activities should not adversely affect human rights. Indeed, most people would expect, particularly in the least developed countries, an enhancement of rights for persons through economic development with the resulting better and much needed public services as well. That is a view held by most people.
I refer to one excerpt from Ms Curran's presentation. She stated:
Those who question and resist the destruction of their lands and communities are facing brutal consequences, including killings, attacks, criminalisation and repression. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the data on disappearances, killings and assassinations as a horror story. Since 2015, more than 2,000 attacks on activists working on human rights issues related to business have been documented by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
In reference to the request made by witnesses to us to make particular recommendations to the Tánaiste and his Department, with the agreement of this committee, and following this meeting, we will write about the very important issues that all of the witnesses have put before our meeting this morning. Ms Curran, in her presentation, asked us to recommend to the Tánaiste that stronger regulation is needed nationally and internationally to provide a legal framework to ensure business corporations do not violate human rights in their operations. She recommended Ireland to adopt mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation; Ireland to support EU mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation; and Ireland to support and contribute to the development of a UN binding treaty on business and human rights. Those recommendations meet with the approval of our committee.
I will write to An Tánaiste outlining the issues that were very well amplified by all of our guests and I will call on him to advance the requests they put forward and that meet with the agreement of this committee.
We will keep this issue on our work programme. We have many competing demands for meetings but we will keep this issue on our work programme for 2020. Mr. O'Donovan might forward that material to the clerk who will then circulate it to all the members.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank our guests again for their presentations and for dealing very adequately with the issues and concerns raised by colleagues.
Our next meeting will be at 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 28 November, when we will meet the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, We are likely to have a select committee meeting next Thursday afternoon but members will be notified of that this evening.