27th Jun 2022

EU must ensure business respects human rights, says UN

United Nations special representative on human rights and business John Ruggie told MEPs on Thursday (16 April) that governments must step up to the plate and accept their role in preventing human rights abuses related to business.

While admitting that the international community was still only in the early stages of dealing with the topic, Mr Ruggie said the status quo was unacceptable.

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  • Europe must do more than say nice words to ensure that business respects human rights, says the UN (Photo: European Commission)

"One thing is clear, even in this early state, business as usual isn't good enough for anybody, including business. We have to change our ways," he said.

Last year the United Nations, under Mr Ruggie's stewardship, published a document, Protect, Respect and Remedy: a framework for business and human rights that attempted to define the different roles of governments and companies in the area.

"When a state adopts human rights instruments [such as guidelines for businesses produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], as the European states of course all have, they also adopt an obligation to protect against human rights abuses," he said.

This includes protection from potential abuses perpetrated by businesses, he added.

One failing in this area is the tendency of EU governments to define human rights excessively narrowly so that they are rarely mentioned in the domains that most affect EU businesses, such as corporate and investment law.

As an example, Mr Ruggie pointed to the fact that the government of South Africa is currently engaged in a legal dispute with an Italian mining company that wants to be re-imbursed for the economic effects of the country's black economic empowerment act.

"There's a problem with that. If post-apartheid South Africa cannot adopt legislation to promote the rights of the majority population without fear of having to pay off a substantial sum of money to an Italian company, there is something wrong with the way we draft investment treaties," he said.

Also addressing the European Parliament subcommittee on human rights, Jan Wouters, a professor with the Catholic University of Leuven told MEPs that the EU policy on corporate social responsibility was suffering from an implementation failure.

"Corporate social responsibility is continuously invoked in EU external policy documents, but very little action is taken," he said.

Industrial production down

While MEPs debated human rights issues related to business practices, new figures out on Thursday on industrial production for the euro area show a drop of 2.3 per cent in February of this year compared to January.

The data produced by the European statistics office indicate that the fall is a dramatic 18.4 per cent when February's production levels are compared to the same month last year.

At the same time, new inflation figures also produced by Eurostat indicate that annual inflation for March of this year was a meagre 0.6 per cent, down from 1.2 per cent in February.

Such drops will strengthen the case for an interest rate cut next month when the European Central Bank meet on 7 May.

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