Published on 23 August 2018


Towards a binding international human rights treaty for transnational corporations?

A United Nations working group has just published the first draft of an international treaty obliging transnational corporations to respect human rights. It should serve as a basis for negotiations in Geneva, which will begin in October. But the basis of this text is not without pitfalls…

United Nations headquarters in Geneva


Three years after the start of discussions at the United Nations, a first draft of an international treaty intended to define the actions of transnational corporations concerning human rights, has just been published in Geneva. If mobilised, it will be the first binding treaty of its kind. Today, guidelines published by the United nations, OECD and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) only provide recommendations that guide transnational corporations and nation-states in their operations and activities.

This text is intended to be “victim-oriented,” says the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations, which leads the working group for the treaty. The treaty must simultaneously, assure access to justice and redress in case of “human rights violations committed in the context of transnational economic activities,” and finally, “prevent any repetition of such violations.

Inspired by French due diligence law

In the 'zero draft' published in July, victims are given the opportunity to take legal action not only in the country where the violations took place, but also where the parent company is located. They can even do so in a country where the corporation has significant activities. In addition, much like the French due diligence law, the transnational company must publish information on environmental and human rights issues and risks and the policies put in place to deal with them. In case the measures fail, responsibility can be placed on transnational corporations, and the whole value chain would be concerned.

"It’s a good basis for starting discussion, but the text still contains weaknesses regarding corporations’ direct obligations and their implementation mechanism. If we did not expect the creation of an international court, the mere establishment of a monitoring committee, without due investigation or sanction, seems to us, greatly insufficient," said Juliette Renaud, CSR campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

A divisive treaty

On the other hand, employers' organisations consider that the draft treaty is "counter-productive" and "jeopardises the consensus reached with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights". Among the fears expressed by the International Organisation of Employers (OIE), is the risk of curbing investments in industrial, emerging and developing countries.

The treaty is also divisive at the state level. The initiative has been launched since 2014 by Ecuador and South Africa but support for it remains small, and even challenged, by some western countries. The European Union is regularly denounced by NGOs for its efforts in blocking the treaty. As for the United States and Canada, they simply do not participate in the negotiations.

France, initially reluctant, has finally committed to supporting the project and "now plays a more active role in negotiations," according to Friends of the Earth. "There is also more interest since the adoption of the due diligence law," says Renaud. France assures that various European states support the treaty. For the past six months, a Brussels-based working group has been implemented to tackle this subject.

Béatrice Héraud @beatriceheraud

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