Civil Society Perspectives on Business and Human Rights

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 11.11.59We are delighted to welcome the latest in a series of cross-posts by Dr Shane Darcy from the Business and Human Rights in Ireland Blog. The Business and Human Rights in Ireland Blog is dedicated to tracking and analysing developments relating to business and human rights in Ireland. It aims to address legal and policy issues, as well as highlighting human rights concerns raised by the activities of Irish companies or multinational corporations based in Ireland. The blog is run by Dr Shane Darcy who is a lecturer at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland Galway.

The theme for this year’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade NGO human rights Forum is ‘Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles’. The event, which takes places this Friday, 7 November 2014, is seen by the Department as part of its consultative process towards the development of a national action plan for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles:

The objective is to present the opportunity for business and civil society to set out their views on business and human rights, both in the broad sense and also with a view to helping to develop a national plan.

In the lead-up to the Forum, a series of guest posts have been running on the Business and Human Rights in Ireland blog, bringing together a variety of international and national civil society perspectives on the topic of national plans for business and human rights. In this post, I try to highlight some of the key points made by the contributors, which may be of interest to those attending Friday’s event.

Starting off the series, Shawan Jabarin, the Director General of Al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights organisation, underscores the role that business is playing in perpetuating the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He makes an interesting historical comparision with Ireland, and considers it:

both ironic and disappointing is that today one of Ireland’s largest corporations, Cement Roadstone Holdings, is profiting from the construction of settlements and walls in occupied Palestinian territory, both of which are violations of international law.

Al Haq, who will be represented at the Forum (as will Cement Roadstone Holdings), have expressed their hope that Ireland might use this opportunity to “raise the bar” in the area of business and human rights.

David Joyce from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions reflects in his piece on the contribution that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can make towards the attainment of the decent work agenda. He sees their importance in the clarification they bring regarding the different roles and responsibilities of business and Governments. He rightly observes that “businesses should not decide what their responsibilities to society are”. David also highlights the weakness of the OECD National Contact Point in Ireland and sees an opportunity in this process for its strengthening.

Karol Balfe, a policy adviser for Christian Aid Ireland focuses on the case of Colombia, in particular on issues relating to trade and human rights. She highlights the opposition of many unions and farmers to the EU Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru, which is to be the subject of a forthcoming Dáil debate. Although there are some human rights aspects to the Agreement, she points to the absence of proper monitoring or compliance mechanisms. She calls on the Irish government, in line with the Guiding Principles, to “develop and set out clear and specific human rights guidelines for Irish companies doing business in Colombia in order to ensure they do not violate human rights”.

Selina Donnelly, Policy Officer for Trócaire, also contributed a post, drawing on the detailed policy position paper on business and human rights that the organisation has just published. Extraterritorial enforcement of human rights is particularly important, she writes, “given the increasing globalisation of business, and growth of corporate influence”. She highlights the significant risks that Irish businesses may become directly responsible or complicit in human rights violations, especially in countries with poor human rights records or weak regulatory environments. She outlines Trócaire’s recommendations regarding remedies, due diligence and the need for a gender focus.

On the subject of national action plans for business and human rights, Claire Methven O’Brien, Strategic Adviser to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, makes the compelling case as to why such plans can help advance the business and human rights agenda. She highlights five key reasons as to why States should adopt national implementation plans: stocktaking, increasing the visibility of particular rights issues, exposure of poor human rights practice, facilitating dialogue between Governments, business and civil society, and, finally, permitting home-grown responses to concerns over business impacts on human rights.

In the most recent contributions, Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East Researcher for Human Rights Watchexplains that the adoption of the Guiding Principles has “undoubtedly” helped NGOs address corporate violations of human rights, by providing a framework in which to put pressure on companies. He focuses on forced labour in the Gulf, particularly prominent in the context of the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, and provides some basic advice for construction companies that might be operating there. Hannah Grene, an independent researcher in human rights and development, also looks at issues of extraterritorial respect for human rights. She draws on Ireland’s poor record in relation to bribery overseas and advocates for significant changes to the way in which the OECD national contact point operates here.


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This post gives just a flavour of some of the business and human rights issues that civil society will be seeking to be addressed at the annual DFAT NGO human rights Forum this Friday. A recent post on the blog also included a summary of recommendations made by the Irish Centre for Human Rights in 2012 on the subject of business and human rights. Other NGOs in Ireland have also made submissions to the Department in the recent past relating to business and human rights, including Amnesty International, and no doubt they will also make their voices heard at the Forum.

Civil Society Perspectives on Business and Human Rights

Review of Ireland's Foreign Policy Announced

dfalogoThe Department of Foreign Affairs has announced a full review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy and External Affairs. This review follows the present Government’s statement of strategy 2011-2014 which included developing Ireland’s economic interests, contributing to peace and reconciliation on the island and contributing to peace, security and human rights globally. Each aim had specific performance indicators, many had to measure, though others such as Chairing the OSCE and election to the UN Human Rights Council were more substantive.

This full review tackles a broad range of issues though the public consultation document’s questions does not substantively address the underlying principles of Ireland’s approach to the world outside its borders. Nontheless, it is a key opportunity to question the foundations of Ireland’s traditional foreign policy including ‘military’ neutrality, the triple lock system, approaches to economic organisations as well as economic and social rights particularly post bail-out, political and cultural rights, peacekeeping and Ireland’s role in promoting UN Women as well as security and governance questions in the global political and legal order, if the questions posed by the document are interpreted beyond some of their narrow guidance.

The Public Consultation document is divided into a number of questions tackling individual aspects of foreign policy including: promoting Ireland’s interests and values although it is somewhat unclear how these were originally identified, examining Ireland’s approach to emergent powers, ensuring Ireland’s voice in the EU and promoting its interests, how Ireland contributes to a rule-based system of global governance, within the UN, which makes clear that this is where Ireland will situate itself, how to build bilateral economic links and using the embassy network to do so, Ireland contribution to development particularly with the end of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, promoting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, engagement with the diaspora and finally, promoting Ireland’s image abroad.

This is a very broad range of issues and while the consultation does not appear to tackle or provide an opportunity to consider the historical and political assumptions evident in the questions that it poses it does provide a potential opportunity to consider Ireland’s role both regionally and globally. If fully considered its outcome maybe and Ireland that is perhaps a little less hesitant to be vocal in issues it claims to hold precious but also take more seriously when Ireland is found not to be following the rule-based order it claims to uphold, even when to do so may be embarrassing.

Full details are available here and the closing date for submissions is February 4th 2014.

Review of Ireland's Foreign Policy Announced

The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor

Two events earlier this month have put global development at the forefront of the Government’s Irish Aid programme’s objectives for 2013. First, the Department of Foreign Affairs co-hosted, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a forum on Women entrepreneurs in Developing Countries. This was followed by a forum on global poverty with the World Alliance of Cities against Poverty. Naturally, placing socio-economic rights at the forefront of aid and development discussions should be expected to be at the core of these events, however, far too often and increasingly of late, such debates and programmes have become overshadowed and, perhaps, even hijacked by liberal economic concerns. Such economics concerns increasingly appear to possess more weight and often better articulated than a rights based approach or development as a good in itself to be fulfilled. The focus on women and the urban poor is to be welcomed in both instances, yet the conscious effort to phrase these attempts to bring about substantive change in an economic rather than in a rights/dignity setting is a matter of increasing concern.

The first event, centred on access to education and reproductive health, both also Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Continue reading “The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor”

The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor

Ireland to sign the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Department of Foreign Affairs has announced that Ireland is to sign the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This is a welcome decision by the Government, though no date has been set for ratification. In many ways ratification is the most important step as it enables individuals to rely on the Optional Protocol, however the decision to sign the Protocol should be welcomed. The ICESCR was opened for signature, alongside its companion treaty, the International Covenant for Civil and Poltical Rights (ICCPR) in 1966 and came into operation in 1976. The decision to separate these rights is rooted in both Cold War politics and the belief of some states at the time and currently that Economic, Social and Cultural Rights should not have the same enforcement mechinisms and are of a different character to their Civil and Political Rights counterparts. This stance is also reflected in the status of the section on the Directive Principles on Social Policy in the Irish Constitution.

Ireland signed the ICCPR in 1973 and ratified it in 1989. In the same year, Ireland also ratified the ICCPR’s Optional Protocol, which allows individuals to take claims to the ICCPR’s attached Committee. The Optional Protocol for the ICESCR was not open for signature until 2008. ICESCR’s Optional Protocol also allows individuals to take complaints based on the treaty to its attached Committee (CESCR). Continue reading “Ireland to sign the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”

Ireland to sign the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

UPR Symposium: Ireland's Human Rights Priorities and the Universal Periodic Review

Human Rights in Ireland is pleased to host this blog symposium on the Universal Periodic Review process. This symposium was organised by Liam Thornton, from Human Rights in Ireland and Danielle Kennan, Child and Family Research Centre, NUI Galway. Danielle contributes in a personal capacity.

Danielle noted the innovative nature of this review process here, while calling for a debate on some key issues which need to be focused upon.  Aoife O’ Donoghue also commented upon this issue here. The posts received in response to this call and set out below raise a number of important substantive issues in the area of, children’s rights, the rights of prisoners, the process of civil engagement and finally questions regarding the UPR process in and of itself.

What is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)?

The UPR is a process which all member states of the United Nations Continue reading “UPR Symposium: Ireland's Human Rights Priorities and the Universal Periodic Review”

UPR Symposium: Ireland's Human Rights Priorities and the Universal Periodic Review

Minister for Foreign Affairs addresses UN Disarmament Conference

On Tuesday the Minister for Foreign Affairs addressed the UN Conference on Disarmament. This Geneva based body is the main forum for the discussion of disarmament of weapons and was established in 1979. Ireland has been at the forefront of some of the recent efforts to bring about the restriction on the use of Cluster Munitions with the 2008 Dublin Conference succeeding in agreeing the text to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It prohibits the stockpiling, production and transfer  of cluster munitions that come within the Convention. It will enter into force on August 1st 2010.

In his speech at the Conference Minister Martin stressed the need to ensure compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons which has been in force since 1970. The Minister also  spoke of Ireland’s long-held position as regard to non-proliferation.

This week marks the anniversary of another proud moment in Irish and international history, with the fortieth anniversary next Friday, the 5th of March, of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  In 1958, one of my distinguished predecessors, Frank Aiken, introduced the first of a series of UN resolutions which called for prevention of the further dissemination of nuclear weapons. He worked tirelessly for a treaty on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.  The lasting achievement of the NPT has been to diminish the spectre of a nuclear war. The nuclear-weapon States made binding commitments to nuclear disarmament and other States undertook not to acquire nuclear weapons.  This commitment to nuclear disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States was transformed into practical steps at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, at which the seven-member New Agenda Coalition, including Ireland, played a central role.

While the Minister did not mention Iran specifically his reference to renewed US leadership in the area, in the guise of its negotiations with Russia for the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons held, and his call for a nuclear weapon free Middle East could be read as support for action to be taken within the UN to prevent powers in the Middle East such as Iran from attaining nuclear arms. While negotiations have continued with Iran, it has been reported that Russia is now willing to support more sanctions against Iran if it continues to prevent full inspection of its nuclear facilities. The cause of nuclear disarmament is still very much alive and while Ireland will probably have little impact upon any action that is taken against Iran, showing support for the enforcement of international law remains important.

Minister for Foreign Affairs addresses UN Disarmament Conference

Department of Foreign Affairs and the Sources of International Law

dfa_topban_du000668While searching through the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) website  it occurred to me that it gave an interesting guide to the Irish Government’s attitude towards international law. While the Constitution does not give much guidance beyond a ‘devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation’ under Article 29.1, to pacific settlement of disputes under Article 29.2 and the acceptance of ‘the generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct’ with other states under Article 29.3 there is little firm guidance given on any body of international law beyond the EU under Article 29.4  or the International  Criminal Court  under Article 29.9. In contrast to this the DFA website goes into some detail on Ireland and international law. As an example it lists the treaties that Ireland is party to and details on international law in Irish courts’ case law . Though this is  a  paltry list that  includes very few of the international human rights law cases that have gone before the courts, including those cases that have made their way to the European Court of Human Rights such as the  Norris case, this would seem to indicate that the DFA does not consider any human rights cases to be an aspect of  international law. It also has some detail on the sources of international law.

Quoting Article 38.1 of the International Court of Justice Statute, the DFA website goes on to describe treaties and custom ( which it states is relevant in the absence of a treaty, asserting firstly that there is a hierarchy of sources, which is far from a settled argument and  secondly that custom cannot be complementary or some instances surpass treaties as a source of law as is the instance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which is utilised by the DFA as an example of a classic treaty. It has far surpassed its original text )in some detail. This suggests that the DFA does not have much regard for Articles 38.1. (c) or (d) of the ICJ Statute that deals with general principles of international law, judical decisions and writings of academics.  It also gives its own interpretation on what the ICJ specifically may do with the decisions of national courts:

Apart from decisions of international judicial bodies, decisions of a national court may amount to a statement of what that court considers to be international law on a particular matter. Such a decision would only carry weight as evidence of international law where the court is of very high standing and where the international law issue is central to the case and receives careful consideration. So, for example, important decisions of the United States Supreme Court (such as 1900 case, The Paquete Habana), the House of Lords (such as the Pinochet Case) and the Irish Supreme Court (such as The Government of Canada v The Employment Appeals Tribunal) have influenced the development or interpretation of international law.  

Where exactly the DFA have found this interpretation of ICJ practice is unclear. It is a very limited understanding of how the ICJ can and does use domestic case-law in its reasoning. The DFA also appears to ignore many of the other judical bodies such as the WTOs Dispute Settlement Body, or the European Court of Human Rights or any of the other myriad of bodies which interpret international law on a regular basis actually operate.  The nature of the guidance on this website is very limited, in fact it could be disregarded as misleading as an accurate guide to the sources of international law. It is my intention to have a good rummage among the webpages of the DFA for similar assertions about international law, I will report back with any other findings of misdescription.

Department of Foreign Affairs and the Sources of International Law