The International Human Rights Day offers a new opportunity to take stock of the progress made by the EU on protecting and promoting human rights for all. Unfortunately, when it comes to improving corporate accountability, its record is far from satisfying. While multiplying commitments and declarations, the EU’s policy on business and human rights is marred by a clear gap between its public ambitions and the measures it adopted.
Endorsing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the EU and its Member States have committed to better regulate business activities, to ensure businesses respect human rights and to improve access to remedies for affected populations. In reality however, the European Commission demonstrates a clear lack of leadership, coupled with a weak and voluntary approach to corporate accountability.
The Commission’s reluctance to put human rights on top of its political agenda is evident by the delayed and unpromising EU CSR Strategy and the repeated deferment of a European Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Member States display a similar lack of ambition, notably by favouring non-binding requirements for companies and failing to improve the availability of remedies for corporate abuses through judicial, administrative, and legislative means.
The recent Volkswagen emissions scandal proves that businesses should neither be allowed to define their own accountability targets, nor to self-monitor compliance with the existing regulatory framework. But the Commission is choosing not to listen, and follow through with its Better Regulation Agenda. On paper, the Better Regulation project promises improved civil society participation and the protection and advancement of human rights. In practice, concrete progress on such matters is still awaited, while the EU is actually promoting detrimental policies and prioritizing weaker legislation, presenting human rights or environmental legislation as too burdensome for enterprises.
Last October, the EU adopted a new Trade Strategy, committing to promote responsible business and pay more attention to human rights, including by measuring the human rights impacts of its trade and investment policies. Once again, these ambitions fail to materialise in real improvements for those affected. For example, the EU concluded a trade agreement with Vietnam without conducting a human rights impact assessment and despite the EU Ombudsman’s recommendation to proceed with such an assessment without further delay.
The EU is engaging in trade and investment agreements negotiations with an increasing number of countries without setting up appropriate human rights safeguards. Investment agreements in particular show that disproportionate rights and special legal protection are being granted to investors, without subjecting them to any obligation, and without recognizing the affected populations’ rights. Although branding itself a supporter of human rights defenders, the EU fails to provide sustainable and efficient solutions to protect those denouncing corporate abuse abroad, in particular land defenders who are increasingly targeted, harassed and even assassinated.
What’s worse, the EU has so far refused to engage constructively in the UN intergovernmental process aiming at developing an international instrument on business and human rights. This attitude sends yet another negative signal in relation to its commitment to protect human rights against corporate-related violations.
If the EU wants to be a true human rights champion and show leadership in human rights protection and the promotion of democracy, it should start by aligning its own policies with its stated objectives and fixing legislative gaps. Human rights are not voluntary; neither should be the regulation put in place to safeguard them. They are not a matter of pick and choose either, and the EU needs to promote better corporate responsibility across the board. Lastly, human rights are universal, and strict accountability standards must apply to European institutions, Member States and private actors both at home and abroad.