Business and human rights, only “human” or all rights for all?

Spanish governments, whatever their political orientation, in line with other European countries, has been pushing for the incorporation of the private corporate sector in development cooperation. There has been increasing support for this approach due to a reduction in the national development cooperation budget and also as a means for companies to increase their overseas activities and so that can “bring back” the profits from the various development cooperation projects and the investments made in countries with lower average incomes.

Spain’s contribution to the Busan Declaration was poor. It supported the paragraph relating to private corporations in development cooperation and similarly the paragraph on decent work, but it did not intervene on corruption, fiscal transparency or the fight against tax havens that hamper the state’s capacity to make better use of public funds or in the exclusion of the principles of the Paris Declaration from South-South cooperation, led by China.

However, for greater coherency in its foreign policy, it would like to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which combine its discourse in support of business in development and the respect for human rights. A Draft has been prepared which is currently being reviewed by the development cooperation NGOs, trade unions and other social actors as well as the corporate structures.

This Draft will formally translate the Guiding Principles on Business and human rights, adopted on 16 of June 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Council in its resolution 17/4 (A/HRC/17/31). These were drafted by Professor Ruggie, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issues of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The Guiding Principles clarify and summarise the three pillars of the United Nations Framework “protect, respect and remedy” endorsed in 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council, namely:
1. States must protect against human rights abuses within their territory or jurisdiction by third parties, including abuse by business;
2. The corporate responsibility to protect human rights; and
3. Greater access by victims to an effective remedy, both judicial and extra-judicial.

The Draft notes that those Guiding Principles reflect the existing international law, it applies to all States and all businesses, transnational companies and other types, independent of size, sector, location (at home or overseas), owners and structure and highlights that it should not under any circumstances be understood that the Guiding Principles are establishing new obligations under international law nor do they restrict or reduce the legal obligations assumed by a State or those to which it is subject to in accordance with the rules of international law in relation to human rights.

The USO, directly or through the Corporate Social Responsibility Observatory, which the CCOO is also a member of, or through the Coordinator of the Development NGO, which the various development cooperation trade union structures are members of, in our case, SOTERMUN, have criticised and given feedback on this Draft.

“Human rights” should be understood as those rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights and other international Conventions.

For our part, we wanted to avoid the duality of company behaviour in our country, in the main country, normally subject to European legislation, with the company subsidiaries and value chains, determining that each one develops a plan and timeline to equalise behaviours that supersede the weakest national legislation.

Information and fiscal transparency and establishing concrete timelines for public disclosure and complaints and reparation procedures, constitute the second block of proposals.

Finally, we stress one point which is not specifically defined in Ruggie’s Guidelines; i.e. to establish a new frontier to combat tax havens. These constitute the financial basis that facilitate corruption, illegalities and that favour inequality and the inability of the States to procure assets and public services.

It is impossible to talk about development whilst at the same time maintaining the existence and legality of tax havens. This is an obstacle to economic growth. Trade unions must join the campaign against their existence and strengthen social alliances in the face of the worst capitalistic practices.

Written by Santiago González Vallejo, USO-Sotermun (Spain)