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Commentary: The Way Ahead for a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights

Author: Antonella Angelini, Columbia Law School, on Fair Observer, Published on: 7 March 2019

"The Way Ahead for a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights", 28 Feb 2019

We still have a very limited understanding of the impacts businesses have on human rights worldwide...

It has been just over a month since the Brumadinho dam, operated by the Brazilian minerals form Vale, collapsed, killing at least 171 people, with a further 141 still missing. In the wake of what appears to be yet another disaster heavily abetted by the failures of business, news from the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations may seem remote and out of touch. Important developments, however, are brewing there...

October 2018 saw a whopping number of 94 states and 400 civil society organizations participate in the fourth session of the UN intergovernmental working group tasked with developing a binding treaty on business and human rights. This high participation reflects the fact that, unlike in previous sessions, a first-ever full negotiating text — a “zero draft” treaty and a “zero draft” optional protocol — was finally on the table. The draft treaty in particular had already drawn much attention as soon as it went public in July, and a very focused scholarly and policy discussion has thrived ever since...

While all BRICS countries and many states from the so-called “global south” contributed, Western states — including the European Union, the US and Australia — were either absent or dissociated themselves from the conclusions of the October session. The EU in particular rubbed salt into the wound by pointing to the many open issues and the virtual boycott by major Western states as signs of dwindling faith in the leadership of the working group...

Most Latin American states insisted on the need to focus, like the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs), on all business enterprises. States that are home to fewer multinational companies — such as IndonesiaEgypt and the Philippines — blended their support for the draft treaty with a veiled defense of the special position of national small and medium enterprises. Others still reiterated a more open support for a primary focus on transnational corporations. But very few zeroed-in on the actual language of the draft treaty that speaks of for-profit business activities of a transnational character...

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Related companies: Vale