Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
50. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the need for binding legislation here to secure due diligence for business and human rights to ensure mandatory guidelines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46258/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 50 and 69 together.
We partly answered this question earlier, but what I am about to read contains a slightly different answer. As the Deputy is aware, the question of a legally binding treaty to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises has been under consideration in Geneva by an open-ended intergovernmental working group for five years. For further information on the general state of play on the prospects for such an instrument, I refer the Deputy to the response I gave to Deputy Shortall a few minutes ago. As the proposed treaty covers matters for which the European Union is competent, it will be for the European Commission to negotiate on behalf of the Union and its member states. I understand the matter will be on the agenda for the incoming Commission.
I am aware that some civil society actors in Ireland have been very active in calling for Ireland to support the legally binding treaty and, in this context, have made specific recommendations for the adoption by both Ireland and the European Union of legislation on mandatory due diligence. The need for due diligence mechanisms was considered in the development of Ireland's national plan on business and human rights which was launched at the end of 2017. It identified existing provision in this area, for example, EU directives on environmental liability and non-financial reporting, and set out a number of action points to be taken forward by the business and human rights implementation group.
Further research on the matter was undertaken in the context of the baseline assessment of the current legislative and regulatory framework for business and human rights in Ireland which was commissioned by my Department on foot of a key commitment given in the plan. Both the national plan and the baseline assessment are available on my Department's website. Among the recommendations made in the baseline study, to be considered by the business and human rights implementation group, is the suggestion that consideration be given to the adoption of mandatory human rights due diligence, in line with similar legislation already made in other countries. I will await the outcome of the implementation group's deliberations on this issue before moving forward with specific policy proposals.
It took some time for Ireland to establish a national plan and an implementation group. On Thursday the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade will discuss the matter. There were positives: the Minister's answer to me the last time he attended the committee; the increased engagement by Ireland in the UN treaty process; and the fact that the staff of our permanent mission to the United Nations attended the full week of sessions on transnational corporations. However, it was Spain and France that made positive interventions, during which Ireland stayed silent. There are interesting statistics for the attendance of the various groups and who participated. The European Union approved the conclusions and recommendations. We know the realities of human rights abuses by corporations, multinationals and transnationals, whether it be in working conditions, land grabs, intimidation or violence, particularly against women, in some areas by corporations. It has even led to deaths. We are very well respected when it comes to the protection of human rights. The question is whether Ireland will take the extra step. Will there be increased engagement on the UN treaty in Brussels? Will we push for EU engagement in the process and an EU-negotiated mandate?
We are pushing for increased EU involvement. In response to Deputy Shortall earlier I stated we had pushed the European Union to increase its engagement. It made a statement both at the start and at the end of the process in Geneva. We need to continue to do this. We also need to ensure our national plan is credible and that the implementation group will continue to meet. It has met three times this year and will meet again in January. The chairperson is an extremely credible individual with considerable business experience. While we are trying to move the agenda forward, it needs to happen at a global level through the United Nations. I believe 16 EU countries have national plans, of about only 22 globally. The European Union is engaged in this area, but it is really important that it be brought forward in the context of UN structures. Otherwise the European Union will be doing things internally based on how it operates the Single Market and the regulatory environment. Potentially the companies we are trying to target will leave the European Union and locate elsewhere because of the lack of regulation there. This needs to happen in a way that will be benchmarked across the globe, as opposed to focusing on the European Union, but that does not mean that we cannot lead by example.
The implementation group has been rather quiet and I am not sure if some of the subgroups have even met. At a conference in Trinity College Dublin last Friday a report on benchmarking compliance with the UN guiding principles was presented. It indicated that progress had been very slow in meeting the guiding principles on business and human rights. Berta Cáceres was murdered for her work with indigenous people. Seven men and one woman were convicted of her murder last year, but the court found that they had been hired by a construction company's executives in the territory where she had been working and lawsuits are being taken against some multinationals. The report showed a lack of awareness among many Irish companies of the guiding principles. There is no embedding of respect for them and human rights due diligence in their policies. If we are serious about our national plan, much more work needs to be done to ensure mandatory human rights due diligence mechanisms. Some of the NGOs have suggested there be a national consultation process on the UN treaty. I take heart from what the Minister has said about Ireland's position and that we will be positive, but we need to maintain that push.
My Department has undertaken to convene a forum on business and human rights within two years of adoption of the plan. In addition, the interdepartmental committee on human rights, chaired by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Cannon, will also monitor implementation of the plan. There is oversight to ensure that this agenda moves forward but in terms of making an impact on global policy, the EU and the incoming Commission need to give leadership. Ireland will certainly support them in doing that.