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Holding Multinational Corporations Accountable for Human Rights

Advanced-economy governments routinely proclaim their commitment to the principle that businesses have a duty to prevent human-rights abuses, but they have done little to hold corporations accountable. Supporting a new UN treaty would go a long way toward restoring these countries’ credibility.

GENEVA – At the end of October, an intergovernmental working group will meet again to push for an international treaty governing multinational companies’ responsibility for upholding human rights. The working group, created in 2014 by the UN Human Rights Council, holds annual sessions that are attended faithfully by a large cohort of human-rights advocates, environmentalists, and members of social-development organizations. But, while many countries, mostly from the Global South plus China, send representatives to the meetings, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan ignore them, while the EU sends a token delegation and makes no substantive contribution to negotiations. That needs to change.

The treaty on business enterprises and human rights would be the first of its kind under the auspices of the United Nations, and has been a decade in the making. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council approved a set of Guiding Principles that declared commercial enterprises “have a responsibility to respect human rights.” Business associations supported the principles and committed to comply with them – in part because it was not legally mandatory to do so. The principles were non-binding, and adherence to them was impossible to monitor or enforce. States were expected to prevent and punish human-rights abuses by corporations as part of their existing duties under international law.

In 2017, France became the first country to adopt a law requiring large multinational companies operating on French territory to conduct due diligence on human rights throughout their global operations. Earlier this year, Germany adopted a similar law that will go into effect in 2023, and the European Commission is preparing a directive on the issue that will cover the entire bloc. The drafts of the treaty also contain provisions on corporate due diligence, now with public monitoring and enforcement. If approved, this responsibility would become a worldwide obligation, raising the bar for global business.

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