Jill McArdle © private

Next steps in a people-driven movement for justice at the United Nations (UN)

This October sees the 7th round of negotiations for a UN binding treaty to regulate transnational corporations and other businesses. This process began in 2014 with the adoption of a resolution put forward by Ecuador and South Africa, in reaction to systemic corporate impunity for human rights violations. At the time, Ecuador was battling Chevron in court to make them pay for devastating oil spills. Chevron have still not been held accountable.

The process aims to guarantee the human rights of affected people worldwide, to tackle the power and strategies used by corporations to escape their responsibility, and to address the fact that despite thousands of trade and investment agreements existing to protect the rights of foreign investors, no binding rules exist at international level.

Representatives of affected people have been key players in the process from the beginning. So, we must highlight the Global North’s shameful failure to share the vaccines with poorer countries means people from the Global South will not be able to travel and participate in this year’s session.

A critical moment for corporate accountability

The 7th session comes at a critical moment for corporate accountability in Europe. The EU is finally coming forward with a proposal for a law that would require companies to address risks of human rights violations and environmental harm in their global value chains. France has had its own law in place since 2017, and Germany has recently approved a supply chain act, which thanks to business lobby pressure excluded civil liability, a key tool that enables victims to go to court and get compensated for harm.

The third draft of the binding treaty was released in August 2021, but hasn’t changed much except for a few textual clarifications and edits. However, proposals from civil society (and some states) were not included. The article on liability for harm does not include key provisions ensuring corporations cannot pretend they are not responsible for harms caused by their subsidiaries. The 3rd draft needs strengthening, but contains many important tools that could improve the situation for affected people.

The little differences between the drafts just mean there is no excuse for states not to be ready to discuss what they want to see in the text. The question remains whether most states will get serious and start negotiating. But one thing is certain, unfortunately, and shamefully, the EU will be sitting on the sidelines again.

A lot at stake in the EU

The EU has stayed on the margins each time, criticising the text and the process, claiming that their implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was enough. But in 2021, this excuse no longer works. We need to move beyond voluntary norms and legislate binding rules to respect human rights and the environment. The recent court victories in the Netherlands against Shell, on climate change and oil spills, have shown the key role the courts can play in holding companies accountable.

The EU’s forthcoming law is an effort to address demands for corporate accountability. But will it be forceful enough? Business lobbies are mobilising: they successfully watered down the German law, and corporations like Total are lobbying to prevent the strengths of the French law making it into the EU law.

All this has serious implications for the treaty: the content of this EU law will likely shape the EU’s position in the treaty negotiations.

Looking beyond the 7th session

The EU’s task will be twofold: agree a strong EU law that puts people and planet before business interests, and get formally and actively involved in the UN Treaty process. When the proposal for an EU law arrives – now slated for the end of 2021 – the clock will start ticking for the EU to get its position ready for the 8th session.

Yet that is the long view. This October, the EU and member states should do their utmost to play a constructive role: making meaningful interventions, supporting the work of the chair, and pushing their allies – like Switzerland, Canada, Japan – to play a cooperative role. Another squandered year by the EU is unacceptable.

About the author

Jill McArdle is Corporate Accountability Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, the largest grassroots environmental network in Europe, uniting more than 30 national organisations with thousands of local groups.

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