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10 Nov 2020

Jordi Vives Gabriel, Institute for Business Ethics, University of St Gallen

The Catalan Center for Business & Human Rights: An Opportunity for Catalonia

On October 9, Catalonia’s Parliament agreed to start the proceedings to discuss a law that will give birth to the creation of the Catalan Center for Business and Human Rights. This is excellent news and recognition of the efforts of several Catalan civil society organizations which, for years, have persevered and pushed for its creation. The Catalan Center will be an excellent platform from which to advance the business and human rights (BHR) debate from Catalonia, one of the most economically dynamic regions in Southern Europe. It will be the first public center on the topic at a sub-state level.

The new Center will have to have a clear vision of how it can contribute to moving the debate forward from a Catalan perspective.

The process for a binding treaty on BHR and the 10-year celebration of the UN Guiding Principles on BHR (UNGPs) emphasize, once more, the need for actions and policies that have an effective impact. The new Center will have to have a clear vision of how it can contribute to moving the debate forward from a Catalan perspective. The first proposal draft to be discussed in Parliament considers bold ideas with true potential for impact. For example, the creation of a non-judicial mechanism to alert, investigate and follow up grievances related to Catalan companies operating in foreign countries; the capacity to blacklist and sanction companies for not collaborating with the Center; or the provision of guidance and support to public administrations in Catalonia to develop coherent policies on BHR.

Yet, despite these notable advances, a careful read of the proposal in the light of the UNGPs signals that there are still some opportunities to be realized that drafters and politicians may want to consider in order to maximize the potential impact of the Center.

First, the proposal limits its scope to the study, assessment and control of those companies operating in Catalonia that may impact human rights in foreign countries. The text also emphasizes the role of large corporations in human rights violations. Such restricted scope does not sit well with the UNGPs premise which should apply to all kinds of companies, regardless of their size, structure, sector or location. The Catalan business sector, rather than relying on large corporations with heavy investments abroad, is recognized for having small and medium enterprises with a focus on services and industrial production, and a significant orientation towards exports. The future Center should address this reality, and the associated human rights challenges that come with it, head-on. Focusing exclusively on corporate activities abroad may send the wrong signal. It may contribute to reinforcing the illusion that everything works perfectly in Catalonia and problems are “somewhere else”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many issues at home (e.g. seasonal workers in agriculture; cleaners in the hospitality industry; “riders” in the gig economy) demand visibility and would benefit from being framed under an explicit human rights logic. By placing its attention exclusively on the outside, the Center may lose the opportunity to provide real local impact.

Second, the proposal does not include key measures for the advancement and promotion of human rights among the business sector, such as the provision of guidance and support on how businesses can fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations (Article 3 of the UNGPs). The current emphasis lies exclusively on a “naming and shaming” approach and misses the opportunity to advance and promote tools such as human rights due diligence, which the UNGPs require, for example for companies to “know and show” how they respect human rights.

If the Center is to become a beacon for mediating and resolving conflicts, it may want to incorporate abilities such as dialogue and listening from early on.

Finally, there is an absence in the proposal of any avenue through which the business sector may participate or have its voice heard. The proposal foresees the participation of a broad variety of experts and stakeholders in its governance bodies. But strategically vetting corporate participation may not be a wise move, particularly in light of the Center’s intention to establish a grievance mechanism. If the Center is to become a beacon for mediating and resolving conflicts, it may want to incorporate abilities such as dialogue and listening from early on.

In summary, if Catalonia wants to enjoy a BHR Center with a real capacity to exert change and demonstrate true leadership in the field, it is advisable that promoters and politicians alike address three key questions. First, to design a Center that responds to the reality of the (mostly overlooked) human rights challenges associated with the Catalan business sector. Second, to construct the Center along with the parameters and tools of the highest standard of BHR debate, as represented by the UN Guiding Principles. Third, to find ways to listen and welcome input from businesses as part of the Center’s aim to become an independent and balanced institution. The most difficult task—that of pushing the initiative through Parliament and gaining the will of a majority of the representatives—is on the right track thanks to the persuasion and vision of the promoters. Now, it is about fine-tuning the design. A new and capable institution to promote human rights in the business sector is about to be born in Catalonia—just one last push.

Jordi Vives Gabriel, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Business Ethics, University of St Gallen, Switzerland