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United Nations establishes a Working Group for a Business and Human Rights Treaty

The Council of Canadians has long opposed the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism in ‘free trade’ agreements like NAFTA (where it is more commonly referred to as Chapter 11) and the yet-to-be-ratified Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Ricardo Patiño, the minister of foreign affairs for Ecuador, writes, “The global proliferation of Bilateral Investment Protection Treaties has granted transnational corporations extensive and ever-expanding investor rights and protections at the expense of the rights of the people and environment where they operate. Some of these agreements have enabled corporations to sue the government of South Africa for empowering citizens affected by apartheid, the government of Germany for phasing out nuclear energy, and the governments of Uruguay and Australia for requiring health warnings on cigarette packages.”

He highlights, “A new proposal spearheaded by Ecuador and South Africa to create a legally binding instrument to regulate the human and environmental rights abuses of transnational corporations, recently approved by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, is the start of setting things right.”

Patiño adds, “These new regulations would move the world to a legal framework that holds transnational corporations accountable for their human rights violations. It will provide legal protections and effective remedies, as well as create an important role for civil society actors in promoting corporate accountability and in preventing and mitigating adverse human rights impacts of transnational corporations.”

As the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted this past June, “The [Human Rights] Council decided to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.”

Twenty member states of the Human Rights Council voted in favour of establishing a Working Group for a Business and Human Rights Treaty, while 14 states voted against it and 13 abstained. Canada is not presently a member of the Human Rights Council, but not surprisingly the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany all voted against the formation of the working group.

In terms of a timeline, the International Justice Resource Center says, “The Human Rights Council has instructed [the Working Group for a Business and Human Rights Treaty] to hold its first session in 2015, allowing time for the working group to be constituted. The first two sessions will be focused on deliberating on the content, scope, nature and form of the future treaty. The third session will be dedicated to negotiating substantive elements for the draft treaty. The Human Rights Council expects the working group to submit a progress report for consideration by the Council at its 31st session, to be held in March 2016.”

The Council of Canadians and Blue Planet Project have endorsed the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power which seeks to develop an International Peoples Treaty that would “defend the rights of, and empower the peoples, especially those affected the crimes and violations of transnational corporations.”