In less than a month’s time the second meeting of the Intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights will convene in Geneva to discuss a binding treaty proposed by the UN Human Rights Council, on Business and Human Rights.
In September 2013 a grouping of countries, predominantly from Latin America, Africa, the Arab region and Asia (lead initially by the Government of Ecuador), issued a statement calling for recognition that
"increasing cases of human rights violations and abuses by some Transnational Corporations reminds us of the necessity of moving forward towards a legally binding framework to regulate the work of transnational corporations and to provide appropriate protection, justice and remedy to the victims of human rights abuses directly resulting from or related to the activities of some transnational corporations and other businesses enterprises".
Work towards the Treaty itself began with a resolution co-sponsored by Ecuador and South Africa which passed in June 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council to create a global legal framework to hold businesses to account for human rights abuses, a framework that doesn’t currently exist. The resolution passed with affirmative votes from 20 states, mostly from the Global South, but some states chose to abstain and even to vote against it, including the UK.
Since the resolution first passed over 1000 civil society organisations, including Progressio, and individuals have signed a statement of support for a binding instrument and called on the Working Group to take specific measures to deliver effective human rights protections to prevent and remedy corporate abuses. This Treaty is undoubtedly gathering momentum and has popular support globally, especially from those who know and experience the devastating impact business activity can have on women’s and men’s human rights.
The current reality is that businesses operate in a void that neither judicial power nor legal jurisdictions can reach - due to their global reach. Neither voluntary standards nor State obligations can ensure the protection of victims. There is therefore urgent need to improve access to justice, remedy and reparations for victims and to stop corporate human rights abuses through international corporate obligations.
Progressio has seen first-hand the impact of unrestrained business activity. In Zimbabwe’s diamond mining area, thousands of families have been relocated off their lands so that corporations can access the precious stones. Many people have been moved from their family homes and productive farms to arid land where there is not enough space to live, water, or provision for livelihoods.
The socio-cultural and environmental impacts have also been severe, as graves have been destroyed and sacred sites have disappeared. Even mountains which held spiritual significance for communities have been raised to the ground. Rivers, providing vital supplies for livestock, farming and people, have been diverted and polluted by the diamond mining which requires huge quantities of water. The influx of migrant labour from outside the communities has also led to increased levels of gender based violence, early marriage and school dropout, particularly amongst young women because of increased levels of poverty.
The entire communities affected have little power to demand justice from the corporations who have acted without care or compassion for their lives; where they have done so, they have often faced a violent response.
The first meeting of the working group was held last year to discuss the Treaty process. The UK, along with many European governments, chose not to engage - to Progressio’s great disappointment. But we will not back down from our request for the Government to support this process.
The treaty provides a huge and yet rare opportunity to level the playing field between businesses interests and the people who are directly affected by business activity on the ground.