Tuesday, 26 April 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State and apologise for the delay. I know that he had to go to the Lower House. I appreciate him coming back to the Seanad to deal with this matter, which relates to human rights defenders.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to take this matter. This is an important issue and the fact that the Minister of State is here is evidence of that. This matter arose on foot of the publication of a directive from the European Commission on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. Most people across Europe would welcome that document but there is one aspect of it that is of concern, namely, the absence of a specific clause on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders. The reason that is surprising and alarming is because, on the basis of Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union, support for human rights defenders is an EU priority. When a mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence directive is put forward and there is a priority for human rights defenders in an EU treaty, one would think that would be included in it.
I met Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. We had an interesting meeting and she had a number of concerns that she wanted to get across. She believes that Ireland can play a key role in the following ways. First, the Commission should include a specific obligation on companies to take steps to prevent retaliation against human rights defenders across the world because they are subject to serious acts of retaliation when raising concerns. In 2020, there were just in excess of 600 attacks on human rights defenders in countries in South America, Africa and Asia and this happens with European companies. Some of those acts of violence resulted in the killing of individuals who have spoken up. All EU member states will be obliged to introduce some form of human rights and environmental due diligence for businesses as a result of this EU directive on corporate sustainable government. The protection of human rights defenders is a key priority in the context of our foreign policy, and we can lead on a number of human rights defender initiatives at the UN. Environmental and indigenous people's rights defenders face particular risks, often for raising human rights violations in the context of business practices.
The recommendations contained in the implementation review of the first national action plan on business and human rights stated that Ireland should be a global leader in this policy area and that it should consider moving ahead of the EU in the context of legislation. Could the Government commit to ensuring that human rights defenders will be named as stakeholders in our human rights and environmental due diligence legislation when we publish it? Can they further ensure that companies will be required to publish zero-tolerance policies regarding attacks on human rights defenders? We have a great record as a country in defending free speech, human rights and whistleblowers, and we can play a leading role from a European perspective in defending those rights across the world. These situations have happened with big European companies, particularly in South America. Unless we put this legislation in place, we will not fully protect those individuals. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I apologise to the House. Strangely enough, I was not able to arrange a pair so I had to go to vote in the Dáil.
I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this important issue and for giving us the opportunity to discuss it. A proposal for a directive on corporate sustainability due diligence was published by the European Commission on 23 February 2022. The proposal aims to address the adverse environmental and human rights impacts arising from the operations of companies and those of their subsidiaries and value chains.Such companies will be required to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence to identify actual or potential adverse impacts and prevent, mitigate or minimise the extent of such impacts within their own operations, their subsidiaries and their value chains. The effectiveness of the due diligence measures must be assessed at least annually. Company directors will be required to take into account the consequences of their decisions in areas such as human rights, climate change and environmental impacts.
Companies will be required to establish procedures to handle complaints from those adversely affected by company operations and from other key stakeholders. The proposal also provides for the designation of supervisory authorities at national level and a civil liability regime in terms of companies who fail to meet their obligations.
The proposal contains a definition for "stakeholder" which is broadly defined and encompasses a company’s employees, the employees of its subsidiaries, and other individuals, groups, communities or entities whose rights or interests are, or could be, affected by the products, services and operations of the company, its subsidiaries or its business relationships. I remain committed to ensuring that the interests and rights of all stakeholders are appropriately protected under the proposal and, should it be warranted, consider whether it is necessary for specific stakeholders to be defined under the directive.
I want to reassure the Senator that the proposal is at a very early stage and is ongoing across EU member states. My Department is engaging at EU working party level to clarify the practical implications of what has been proposed. Given the complexity of the issues being addressed, negotiations at EU level may well continue through the remainder of this year and, in fact, go into 2023. Decisions on how the proposal will be legislated for in an Irish context will be taken once the directive has been finalised.
Recognising the importance of this directive, my Department has begun a process of engagement with key stakeholders and intends conducting a public consultation on the proposal in the next number of months to help inform the Government's position. Ultimately, in informing the Government's position, it can ensure that we have our ethical values and, indeed, as mentioned by the Senator, our strong track record on human rights enshrined in this directive when it is published later this year or early next year.
I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. He is right that the proposal is at a very early stage and the most important aspect to take into account is his openness. He has said that he is "committed to ensuring that the interests and rights of all stakeholders are appropriately protected under the proposal and should it be warranted consider whether it is necessary for specific stakeholders to be defined under the directive", which is a fair reply and I thank him.
Ms Mary Lawlor, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights defenders, has requested a meeting with the Minister of State and his Department. I hope that he is willing to meet her because she can give a very good insight, from her perspective, on her work around the globe to protect human rights defenders. Her insight will give us a good insight into the role that we can play as Members, the Government and the Department. I would be grateful to the Minister of State if he meets Ms Lawlor.
I wish to reassure Senators that we, as a country and a Government, are very supportive of the objective of the proposed directive, which will promote responsible business conduct. I am aware that some stakeholders have expressed concerns about the perceived shortcomings of the proposal. I recently met representatives of the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights and I look forward to hearing the views of all those with an interest in this proposal.
I believe that it is important that we do hear all views on this important matter.I confirm that I intend to host an event in the coming months to open a public consultation with stakeholders in order to ensure that we have a robust discussion on the obligations and responsibilities of the companies regarding the environment and human rights. In doing that, we will inform the Irish position on this directive and ensure that our values can be enshrined in it.
I have no difficulty in facilitating the Senator's request to meet Mary Lawlor. My office may already have offered a date to her. If not, we will certainly offer a date to her before the end of the week. It is an important directive and it is important to have broad consultation and engagement in order to inform the Government's position. I look forward to leading on that.