Timeline of key developments in the struggle to establish an international system of accountability for human rights abuses committed by transnational corporations and other business enterprises:
Since the early 1970s, there have been concerted efforts to develop binding international systems to regulate corporations for their human rights violations. Revelations that ITT incorporated was colluding with the CIA to plot a military coup in Chile spurred action in 1972 to establish a Commission on Transnational Corporations, and an affiliated Centre on Transnational Corporations.
Through the meetings of the Commission there were efforts for over a decade to create a Code of Conduct on Transnational Corporations (TNCs). Once the text was finalised in 1990 there was resistance from some States in 1992 to the idea that they could be required to ratify the Code and apply it domestically. This signaled the end of the attempt to establish a system of binding rules through the Commission on TNCs. The activities of the Centre on TNCs was ultimately transferred to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
In 1998 the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, a subordinate body of the then-Commission on Human Rights (later replaced by the Human Rights Council), established a working group to 'examine the effects of transnational corporations on human rights'. In 1999 this working group set about established a Code of Conduct. At the renewal of the mandate of the working group by the Sub-Commission in 2001 the resolution required the working group to analyse and draft norms for the establishment of a monitoring mechanism that would apply sanctions to transnational corporations when appropriate'.
In 2003 the Sub-Commission approved the norms established by the working group, and forwarded them to the Commission on Human Rights for their consideration for approval. The norms designed a 'non-voluntary' international system of regulation for corporate violations of human rights. They were broadly supported by civil society, but rigidly opposed by some from the business sector. In particular, the International Organisation of Employers and the International Chamber of Commerce referred to the norms as 'counterproductive'.
In 2004 the Commission on Human Rights thanked the Sub-Commission for their work but ultimately referred to the norms as having 'no legal standing', which thereby thwarted the second major attempt to pass an international system of binding rules to govern corporate human rights violations.
In 2005, then-U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan appointed Professor John Ruggie (prime author of the 2000 voluntary 'Global Compact') as the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (SRSG). At the end of his first term the SRSG proposed a 'Respect, Protect, Remedy Framework' to the U.N. Human Rights Council, at their session in June 2008.
At the end of the second term of the SRSG, in June 2011, he presented Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the Human Rights Council, which were said to operationalise the Framework presented in 2008. States on the Council did not oppose the Guiding Principles, even though they received strong criticism from civil society organisations in the lead up to the June session. In a Joint Statement issued after the Guiding Principles were released at the beginning of 2011, they stated that "the draft Guiding Principles is not a statement of the law. In some areas the draft of the Guiding Principles takes a more regressive approach towards the human rights obligations of States and the responsibilities of non-state actors than authoritative interpretations of international human rights law and current practices", and "risk undermining efforts to strengthen corporate responsibility and accountability for human rights".
Recent Developments: 2013-2015
In September 2013 a grouping of countries, predominantly from Latin America, Africa, the Arab region and Asia (lead initially by the Government of Ecuador, and included the African Group, the Arab Group, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru) issued a statement calling for recognition that "increasing cases of human rights violations and abuses by some Transnational Corporations reminds us of the necessity of moving forward towards a legally binding framework to regulate the work of transnational corporations and to provide appropriate protection, justice and remedy to the victims of human rights abuses directly resulting from or related to the activities of some transnational corporations and other businesses enterprises". Furthermore, the Guiding Principles "was a first step, but without a legally binding instrument, it will remain only as such: a “first step” without further consequence. A legally binding instrument would provide the framework for enhanced State action to protect rights and prevent the occurrence of violations."
In November 2013 a group of over 140 civil society organisations issued a joint statement calling for a legally binding instrument to address corporate human rights violations, to be established through an open-ended intergovernmental working group.
In June 2014, the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 26/9, which established an open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) to develop a legally binding instrument on business and human rights. The mandate of the IGWG is to elaborate on a treaty to regulate “transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” The resolution, which was co-sponsored by Ecuador and South Africa, was passed by affirmative votes from 20 member states of the Human Rights Council, while 13 abstained and 14 voted against it. Member states voted as follows: Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam (in favor); Argentina, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Gabon, Kuwait, Maldives, Mexico, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, and the United Arab Emirates (abstained); Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Montenegro, South Korea, Romania, Macedonia, the UK, and the U.S. (opposed).
Between May and June 2015 approximately 1000 civil society organizations and individuals signed a joint statement by the Treaty Alliance in support of a binding instrument and calling on the IGWG to take specific measures to deliver effective human rights protections to prevent and remedy corporate abuses. This support follows the more than 1000 signatories collected in 2013-14 calling for the UN to pass Resolution 26/9 and begin negotiating stronger binding international standards. In July 2015 over 100 civil society organisations from the Treaty Alliance joined together in Geneva to ensure the States present participated in good faith during the first session of the intergovernmental working group (IGWG). Due in part to civil society monitoring of the proceedings some states that appeared to have an intention to hinder the progress of the IGWG were prevented from doing so, particularly on Day One.
Jack Anderson. "Memos Bare ITT Try for Chile Coup," Washington Post, March 21, 1972. Available at: http://bit.ly/1r0Aky0
UNCTAD, World Investment Report: Transnational Corporations & Integrated International Production (2013). Available at: http://unctad.org/en/docs/wir1993_en.pdf
David Weissbrodt & Muria Kruger. "Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights," 97 American Journal of International Law 901 (2003).
"Joint Civil Society Statement on the draft Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights," January 2011. Available at: http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/Joint_CSO_Statement_on_GPs.pdf
"Statement on behalf of a Group of Countries at the 24rd Session of the Human Rights Council," September 2013. Available at: http://business-humanrights.org/media/documents/statement-unhrc-legally-binding.pdf
"Joint Statement: Call for an international legally binding instrument on human rights, transnational corporations and other business enterprises," November 2013. Available at: www.treatymovement.com/statement