The possibility of a binding instrument to defend human rights against the actions of transnational corporations (TNCs) may be quietly dying on the drawing board at a working group meeting, 15 - 19 October 2018, in Geneva.
In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council established a working group on TNCs and human rights, intending to shape a binding instrument to help victims of human rights violations – such as the land grabs and forced evacuations that occur too often in forested nations – and facilitate international cooperation to enforce standards. Despite lukewarm interest from some of the most significant players, the working group has met several times to define the scope and content of such an instrument.
At present, however, EU Member State support is uneven, and the European Commission has no mandate to involve itself in these talks. In June 2018, the European Parliament (EP) asked what the main obstacles to participation in the process were, and what efforts were being made. On 4 October, the EP passed a resolution strongly supporting the 2011 UN Guiding Principles, reaffirming the urgent need for action and regretting a global lack of mechanisms to ensure remedies to human rights violations.
It may all be too little, too late. Passing the resolution was an achievement in itself, and the Commission is not legally obligated to respond.
Rather than a binding instrument, the process may reveal the gulf between what states (and TNCs) will support when provisions can be disregarded with impunity, and what they will support when the possibility of enforcement looms. It also risks destroying the ‘level playing field’ as those enterprises willing to uphold higher standards are kept at a competitive disadvantage.
The October working group meeting is pivotal: without more interest on the part of significant states this process will wither away, largely below the public radar.
That would be a shame, and shameful. The instrument does not involve complex calculations or uncertain scientific processes: it is about putting a halt to human rights violations for economic gain and, where violated, agreeing to enforce human rights standards.