We have come to Geneva from 40 countries to demand an end to corporate impunity

Global Justice Now is joining the Week of People’s Mobilisation from 13 to 20 October in Geneva. It has been organised at the same time as the fourth session of an intergovernmental working group of the UN Human Rights Council, which is mandated to develop a UN Binding Treaty on Transnational Corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises with respect to human rights. The battle for this long-sought treaty is entering a decisive stage.

The Week of People’s Mobilisation is organised by the Global Campaign to Reclaim People’s Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity (Global Campaign). It is a network of more than 250 social movements, civil society organisations, trade unions and communities affected by the activities of transnational corporations like land grabs, extractive mining, exploitative and unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction in various regions. These violations are happening in core economies and countries in the periphery of the world.

This is the fifth year that representatives from various social, economic and environmental justice movements, campaign groups and networks, human rights defenders and trade unions have gathered in Geneva. This year there are people from 40 countries pressing for an instrument that will ensure access to justice for victims of human rights violations caused by the global operations of transnational corporations. It is a decisive year for the movement to be back in Geneva in order to continue pressuring governments to keep the process of building a binding treaty moving forward.

What will happen in Geneva this time?

After three sessions of the intergovernmental working group (in 2015, 2016, 2017) where the elements of the possible treaty were discussed by member countries of the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the chair of the working group (Ecuador) presented a Zero Draft of the treaty in July 2018. Between June and July, Ecuador held four consultations to gather perspectives from various concerned groups and the results were incorporated into the Zero Draft.

The existence of the Zero Draft is an important development in the continuation of the process and the fourth session in Geneva, starting today, will discuss it. However, the content of the Zero Draft is not what the Global Campaign and the various groups that support the process were fully expecting. On the positive side, it includes the obligation of states and the human rights of the victims of violations by corporations. However, there are crucial aspects that were discussed, fiercely debated and proposed by the campaign that are missing in it.

Those missing aspects could make the binding treaty at the end of this process different and representative of the aspirations of the millions of victims of rights violations by TNCs. The elements would provide continuity with the first three sessions since 2015. The missing elements are what could put teeth into the treaty to ensure regulation and an end to corporate impunity. Among the missing elements are:

  • Transnational companies should be recognised as subjects with rights and therefore have corresponding obligations;
  • Inclusion of an international mechanism to implement the treaty that is effective and contributes to end impunity and ensure access to justice of affected communities;
  • Inclusive gender language to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights of women;
  • A definition of the supply chain and social responsibility of the country of origin of the company in all its operations. A binding treaty must establish the civil and criminal responsibility of TNCs and their executives, as well as the shared liability of TNCs for the activities of their subsidiaries, suppliers, licensees and subcontractors, etc.

Events and Activities in Geneva

  • At the UN Square: Launch of the Week of People’s Mobilisation jointly with representatives of the Global Inter-Parliamentary Network, affected communities, movements, trade unions and other networks and organisations.  There were also workshops under the tent of the Global Campaign in the square.
  • Inside the UN: as in other years, there was coordinated participation inside the intergovernmental working group plenary, testimonies of affected communities, both in side events and in focused advocacy with governments. 
  • In the city of Geneva: in coordination with the local University Students Union (Conférence Universitaire des Associations d’Etudiant/Es – CUAE), with local organisations and movements, the Global Campaign is co-organising three public events at the University of Geneva and the Maison des Associations, and participating in a public demonstration for climate justice.

The European Union and UK Position on the Binding Treaty

One of the crucial demands of the campaign is that governments must reaffirm the hierarchical superiority of human rights norms over trade and investment treaties and develop specific state obligations in this regard. The binding treaty could be an instrument towards this aim. Because of the great number of transnational corporations based in EU countries, many of them are involved in rights violations, the EU and its member countries like the UK holds a big global responsibility.

It is notable that so far, despite nine resolutions passed in the European Parliament to support the process of developing a binding treaty, the EU has participated in this process with a limited mandate because the EU member states did not have common positions on the content of any treaty. We understand that the EU delegation only plans to participate in the initial session this morning and the final session on Friday, and only on the procedural aspects of the treaty and not the content. So, we will be pushing them to engage seriously and constructively, instead of blocking the process.

The last European Parliament shortly before the Geneva meeting voted in favour of a resolution that supported the Binding Treaty and urged the EU to support a treaty with obligations for TNCs and human rights. The UK did not actively participate or support the process in this session. However, politicians including Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Helen Goodman MP from Labour, and Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, are in Geneva today to support the process. They will also be joining a side event for parliamentarians from around the world organised by the Global Campaign and the Global Inter-Parliamentary Network.

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