A winding road towards a binding treaty on business & human rights: A focus on Italy

Marta Bordignon, Human Rights International Corner

The 3rd session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (hereinafter IGWG) for the negotiations of an international legally binding instrument addressing human rights abuses committed by transnational corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises (OBEs) is taking place in Geneva from 23 to 27 October 2017. In spite of the well-known position of the so-called front-runners countries - that proposed and supported the approval in July 2014 of the Resolution 26/9 within the UN Human Rights Council calling for the drafting of a treaty – several doubts remain about the position of the European Union (EU) and its Member States. Apparently, the EU Members are following the path clearly expressed by the EU during the first two sessions of the IGWG, which highlighted the lack of political will at EU level to change its approach on this issue.

However, although the EU institutions clearly stated their interest in not sponsoring the negotiations and the adoption of the treaty, some EU Member States are departing from the official EU position by opening a dialogue with involved stakeholders - especially NGOs and CSOs - or by expressing their interest as policy and law-makers to enhance a political debate at national level. For example, it is worth mentioning the very recent statement given by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs replying to an oral question asked by the French MP Dominique Potier, author of the French Law on the Duty of Vigilance. The French Minister clearly stated that the French Government is totally aware of the relevance of such a treaty initiative and would promote further negotiations and discussions with other EU Member States in this regard. At the same time, it seems quite difficult for the NGOs and that support the adoption of a binding treaty on Business and Human Rights to get in touch and have meetings with national and EU MPs or Government representatives, even though they publicly confirmed their interest in this field.

On 4 October 2017 some Italian NGOs very active in raising the awareness of the public opinion and the Italian political institutions about human rights issues – namely Mani Tese, Society for International Development (SID) and Fondazione Finanza Etica with the support of other CSOs and associations - organized a Workshop titled “Human Rights and Business. Towards regulating the economic actors?”. The aim was to open a debate with the Italian MPs, the relevant public institutions, civil society and academia regarding the Italian position about the treaty. The event - that was attended also by the Ecuadorian Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and Chairperson of the IGWG, Guillaume Long – marked the very first moment of a public discussion about this topic in Italy, especially in the light of the recently published “Elements for the Draft Legally Binding Instrument on TNCs and OBEs with Respect to Human Rights” (hereinafter Elements). During the Workshop, the relation between the Italian National Action Plan (NAP) on Business and Human Rights 2016-2021 (released in December 2016 by the Inter-ministerial Committee for Human Rights, in Italian CIDU) and the Elements - in terms of common ways that could be found for implementing the NAP and thus promoting the inclusion of specific provisions in the content of the treaty - has been analyzed. The co-organizers of the event, indeed, were interested in encouraging the Italian Government to provide more data about the implementation of the Italian NAP, as an additional – and not alternative – tool to the legally binding instrument to be negotiated in Geneva. Furthermore, among the objectives of the Workshop were the dissemination of the Treaty Alliance International Statement in support to the IGWG binding treaty proposal, as well as the promotion of parliamentary initiatives, in order to lead the Italian Government to take a favourable position regarding the treaty. As for the follow-ups of the meeting, the idea to establish an Italian Civil Society coalition to combine the efforts of Italian NGOs, CSOs and practitioners to lobby the Italian Government in relation to the implementation of the NAP, the support of the binding treaty and the monitoring on the application of the EU Directive on Non-Financial Reporting in Italy. Despite the limited policy and law-makers participation at the Workshop, some relevant outcomes could be pointed out, such as the will of some Italian political parties to spread the word about the needed engagement of the Parliament and the Government in supporting the treaty, also in the light of the upcoming political elections next spring in Italy.

Finally, according to some insights and recent updates there are some positive expectations about the position that some EU Member States are supposed to take during the 3rd session of the IGWG in Geneva. In this regard, the European CSOs and NGOs that are part of the Treaty Alliance are asking for the establishment of a favourable and positive platform of EU Governments that could support and enhance the treaty during the negotiations in Geneva. Some informal meetings have already been organized. Our hope is that these could work as a leverage for actively sustaining and collectively helping the engaged networks, organizations and individuals all around the world in organizing advocacy actions in support of the proposed treaty.

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Marta Bordignon is the co-founder Human Rights International Corner (HRIC).