Thursday

23rd Sep 2021

Opinion

It's time for the EU to stand up to transnational corporations

  • 1,100 workers died in the Bangladesh factory disaster. Yet none of the transnational corporations which were sourcing from the plant were held accountable in a court of law (Photo: Trades Union Congress)

This week the United Nations will negotiate a treaty that seeks to hold transnational corporations accountable for human rights violations.

The European Union should actively endorse it and demonstrate its commitment to human rights standards.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Five years ago a building collapsed in Bangladesh. More than 1,100 workers died and countless others were injured. Rana Plaza shocked the world. 'Never again' became the motto.

Since then, health and safety conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry have improved, thanks to some voluntary initiatives. Yet, none of the transnational corporations (TNC), which were sourcing from the plant, were held accountable in a court of law or forced to pay damages to the victims.

TNCs are experts in abusing the many freedoms that our globalised economic and legal systems offer.

As various leaks have shown, they barely pay taxes in the countries in which they operate.

Accounting tricks and the willingness of some states to support these semi-legal schemes, facilitate it.

TNCs thus erode the capacity of states to provide the public goods that societies need to thrive. But they are also pushing other corporations to do their dirty work for them, while hiding behind the corporate veil.

The involvement of many TNCs in various kinds of human rights violations is simply unjustifiable and has to stop.

Driven by economic interests and feigning ignorance, TNCs often tolerate human rights violations occurring far down their global supply chains.

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

While they can be very strict when negotiating prices or controlling the quality of their products, TNCs are generally happy to exercise lax oversight on the human rights effects of their subsidiaries or business partners.

This 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is bolstered by a widespread sense of impunity.

A new treaty, which will be negotiated in the coming week (15-19 October) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, aims to put an end to this organised irresponsibility.

It follows the steps of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which the Council unanimously endorsed in 2011.

The treaty proposes to impose a duty on TNCs to restructure their internal operations to fully account for the human rights risks connected with their operations.

It also allows victims to turn to the home courts of the TNCs, which are currently systematically refusing to deal with such cases, thus facilitating access to justice.

Over to you, EU

The European Union, according to its founding treaties, is committed to furthering human rights throughout its external policies.

Yet, until today, its political energy and muscle have been focused primarily on extracting trade concessions from other states to promote business across borders.

It is high time for the EU to invest the same determination in negotiating a treaty that regulates the worst consequences of globalisation.

With the EU on board, such a treaty would significantly affect the way business is conducted across the globe, as it would cover a critical mass of TNCs' home countries.

The European Parliament has grasped the political urgency of the UN treaty and called on the Commission and the Council to engage in constructive negotiations.

At times in which globalisation and the European project are at a crossroads and citizens are clearly tempted to reject both, the EU ought to follow the advice of its democratically elected parliament.

It should seize this opportunity to showcase that it is not an economic project detached from its citizens' concerns, but instead a potent vehicle to regain sovereignty over the unfettered economic power of transnational corporations.

Dr Antoine Duval is a senior researcher in international and European law at the Asser Institute in The Hague, and coordinator of the Doing Business Right project

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

The great EU corporate tax lie

Attempts by the European Commission to 'sell' the new Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base as a measure against tax avoidance are disingenuous at best, say three MEPs from smaller member states.

MEPs dispute details of corporate transparency bill

Companies operating in the EU will be required to report about their activities all over the world, country by country, but will be able to "omit" "commercially sensitive" information.

The EU's 'backyard' is not in the Indo-Pacific

Europe is no longer an Indo-Pacific power. It will not become an Indo-Pacific power. And if it keeps overreaching its geopolitical ambitions, Europe might lose its credibility as a power - entirely.

Column

Long ago, there was another Angela Merkel

There is one female leader in European history whom Merkel resembles much more than the fiery, authoritarian Catherine the Great, who once staged a coup with her lover against her husband. Instead, it is the Habsburg empress Maria-Theresia.

The first anniversary of the Abraham Accords

More than 55 agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain are currently underway. These lay the foundation for practical cooperation in almost all fields including: finance, communications, economy, culture, tourism, taxation, investment protection, freedom of movement, water, agriculture and energy.

News in Brief

  1. French ambassador to return to US after Macron-Biden call
  2. Borrell: EU needs armed force independent of US
  3. Polish region does U-turn on gay rights
  4. Johnson makes fun of French anger on submarine deal
  5. Ukraine vows 'tough response' after gun attack on top aide
  6. Poland again delays ruling on primacy of EU law
  7. EU to table emergency proposals on gas-price surge
  8. EU delays first set of anti-greenwashing rules

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed

Latest News

  1. More French names linked to Russia election-monitoring
  2. Negotiations set for new, tougher, EU ethics body
  3. Lead energy MEP silent on gas meetings before vote
  4. WHO makes major cut in 'safe' air-pollution levels
  5. EU negotiators defend high Covid vaccines prices paid to pharma
  6. The EU's 'backyard' is not in the Indo-Pacific
  7. French MEPs lead bogus EU monitoring of Russia vote
  8. Europeans think new 'Cold War' is here - but not for them

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us