The EU’s engagement with the main Business and Human Rights instruments

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Bijlmakers, Stephanie
Footer, Mary
Hachez, Nicolas
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This report aims at analysing and assessing the activities of the European Union in respect of the Business and Human Rights international governance regime. More particularly, it seeks to take the measure of the EU’s efforts to foster and track responses to five ‘internationally recognised standards’ which form the core of that regime, namely the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the UN Global Compact, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the ISO 26000 Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility and the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. The EU has made a firm commitment to foster human rights-compliant business conduct, and has unequivocally endorsed these five instruments. It has also made them part of its overall Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy, of which the issue of Business and Human Rights is an important component. It is therefore useful to study whether the EU’s endorsement translates into concrete support, and whether such support itself translates into increased awareness and compliance with these instruments by itself, its Member States, third countries, but also of course, by businesses. Regarding the UN Guiding Principles, this report finds that this is the instrument with which the EU is most engaged. It has supported its development and addition at the UN, and now considers it the overarching instrument in the business and human rights regimes, the four others being ways to implement the Guiding Principles. Regarding concrete activities to foster implementation of this instrument, this report finds that, though the EU is very active in coordinating the response of its Member States, notably through the adoption of national action plans, it could do more to improve third country responses, notably by establishing a clearer link between its trade policy and this instrument, in the way that it has done for other types of objectives, such as sustainable development. In addition, the report finds that the EU is abdicating any ambition to proactively foster direct business responses to the UN Guiding Principles, as it considers that enterprises are in the lead in this regard, and that its role must necessarily be a marginal one, confined to soft promotion and coordination. When it comes to the UN Global Compact and the ILO Tripartite Declaration, this report reaches similar conclusions, namely that they are very weakly embedded in the EU business and human rights policy. Beyond the formal endorsement and repetition in a number of instruments (most frequently external relations instruments) of such internationally recognised standards, there is very little by way of specific initiatives to foster and track responses to these two instruments. In the case of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, this report finds that, as a quasi-member of the OECD, the EU is in a pre-eminent position to monitor the compliance of Member States’ companies with the Guidelines to the extent that the Member States are OECD Members or adherents to the OECD Guidelines, and for which they must establish national contact points (NCPs) with a complaints mechanism. The EU tracking of responses to the OECD Guidelines could be made more effective, by dovetailing the OECD’s peer-review mechanism with its own CSR peer review mechanism. It could also support the call for strengthening NCPs so as to improve their overall performance and operate more effectively as a mechanism for addressing business-related human rights complaints. Since the EU is neither an ISO Member nor does it have observer status in this private international organisation, unlike its position in the OECD, it exercises only a marginal role with respect to the ISO 26000 Guidance Standard on SR. Consequently, this report finds that any EU tracking of responses to this CSR instrument is only as good as the information that Member State governments provide, and the situation is not helped, at the level of the European standards organisation, by CEN that has abdicated responsibility for ISO 26000 on the basis of the Vienna Agreement. As a public international organisation, the EU is also ‘covered’ by the guidance standard and it should consider conducting a review of its activities, to better align its SR practices with ISO 26000, as foreseen in the EU CSR Strategy. The report’s last chapter concerns three regulatory initiatives which the EU has recently taken in the framework of its business and human rights policy, and which concern non-financial reporting by companies, the sourcing of certain minerals, and public procurement. These regulatory initiatives were studied in a separate chapter because they do not seek to implement one instrument in particular, but rather the overall objective of fostering CSR, an also because they are quite isolated in the EU’s policy which is made up rather of soft initiatives.