Binding UN treaty on business and human rights (own-initiative opinion)

EESC opinion: Binding UN treaty on business and human rights (own-initiative opinion)

Key points:

  • The EESC fully endorses human rights as a universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent, interrelated and therefore mandatory basis for all societal engagement. Human rights are a foundation for Europe's wealth and a peaceful life. The EESC emphasises that all social and political human rights must guarantee a decent way of living for all people and that their infringement must not lead to unjustified profits.
  • Human rights infringements can be better prevented when there is an internationally-agreed binding standard, designed to be implemented and protected by states. The EESC welcomes an approach recognising that it is the duty of states to protect, promote and fulfil human rights and that businesses have to respect those rights.
  • The EESC welcomes that the current draft text has considered substantive issues proposed by the EU, such as its recommendations for on the scope to encompass all businesses and for a stronger conceptual alignment with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The rules shall be built coherently with existing due diligence systems, especially the UNGPs, to facilitate easier implementation and to avoid redundancies.
  • As the scope of the draft treaty, based on EU recommendations, now encompasses all business activities, generally regardless of size, the EESC encourages the EU and its Member States to take measures to support businesses with the implementation of their human rights obligations, which could be based on their existing voluntary CSR engagements, particularly with regard to international activities. The EESC recognises the difficulties in applying the measures foreseen in such a treaty for SMEs and urges the EU and its Member States to strongly support SMEs and facilitate practical frameworks to enable them to ensure that they respect human rights in their activities.
  • The EESC stresses that non-binding and binding measures are not mutually exclusive, but shall complement each other.
  • Systems like the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises (OECD MNE Guidelines) and the Reporting standards of the UNGP show that there are already practical ways of implementing stringent human rights standards of conduct on the business side. Businesses that have already committed themselves to those standards, should not incur additional burdens. To avoid creating redundancies the optional protocol envisaged in the implementation mechanism shall take into account the system of OECD National Contact Points, which would have to be adapted to support binding rules, or other existing national human rights institutions (NHRIs).
  • Despite much-welcomed major progress, especially in Europe, in relation to non-binding guidelines for respecting human rights in the business context (e.g. UNGPs, OECD MNE Guidelines), a binding treaty is important for those businesses that are not yet taking their responsibilities seriously. In this way, worldwide uniform human rights standards, jurisdiction and applicable law as well as fair and effective access to justice will be assured for victims of business-related human rights infringements. This will also serve to level the playing field for businesses, create legal certainty and create fairer global competition.
  • The EESC recommends that one forum conducting fair proceedings should have jurisdiction particularly when it is unclear whether a parent company, one of its subsidiaries or a supplier is potentially liable, even if the companies are located in different countries. The EESC stresses that through the strong provision on mutual legal assistance, forum shopping can be avoided.
  • The EESC believes that the work of the Open Ended Intergovernmental Working Group shall continue. Accordingly, the EESC stands ready to give input as the voice of organised civil society. The EESC affirms that social dialogue, social partners and civil society organisations significantly contribute to respecting human rights.