British lawyer responds to PBI-Canada question about the need for a Binding Treaty on transnational corporations

Published by Brent Patterson on

On June 24, Peace Brigades International-United Kingdom held a webinar on ‘Environmental Rights and the Legal Community’.

To watch that 1-hour webinar, please click here.

Near the end of the webinar, a question submitted by PBI-Canada was chosen by webinar host Richard Dyton and directed to Kate Cook, a lawyer who practises generally in public international, European Union and human rights law.

We asked for any thoughts on the need for a Binding Treaty on transnational corporations beyond the voluntary Guiding Principles framework. Cook replied:

Obviously, it could be very useful to have a Binding Treaty. Why don’t we have a Binding Treaty on these key issues? But I would just say that unless there is a reasonable amount of support, I don’t mean universal support, but a strong body of support from some key countries, I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, but it could use a lot of time and energy.

I think my focus at the moment with others is looking at the framework that we have that businesses have signed up to, that states have pledged themselves to deliver, and to make as much use of that as we can.

There are all sorts of ways in which the business human rights framework is relevant. There is an increasing trend for national legislation on due diligence as in France as in the state of California. There are parallels with the increasing trend to have on laws on modern slavery, for example, and the responsibilities that are assumed in relation to that.

I have absolutely no objections to pursuing a Treaty, but I think it’s important to have a two-pronged approach where you use the business human rights framework. For example, at looking at how states spend taxpayers’ money on export credits and export funding and overseas development assistance. To make sure that all public money is spent in a way that respects this framework that ensures that due diligence has been done.

And we all think about our position as consumers of products in countries that are buying in products that have been obtained, if they have been obtained, in situations where there are clear human rights violations.

So, I’m not saying no it’s not a good idea, of course I’m not saying, but I’m saying that it’s important not to focus on that at the expense of making maximum use of what we already have.

PBI on Guiding Principles and Binding Treaty processes

In June 2018, PBI-UK launched this 108-page Human Rights Defenders’ Toolbox aimed at, as Kate notes, making maximum use of the existing Guiding Principles.

PBI-UK has explained: “The project seeks to address the fact that, despite the existence of [the Guiding Principles], gaps in their implementation mean that human rights defenders confronting corporate interests still face escalating violence.”

Concurrently, PBI has also supported the call for a Binding Treaty.

In September 2018, PBI-Mexico posted: “After 7 years of the Guiding Principles being in force, PBI has not witnessed an improvement in the situation of risk for human rights defenders on the ground.”

It highlights: “On the contrary, there has been a spike in attacks against land, territory and environmental defenders, indicating that the implementation of the Guiding Principles, mainly through voluntary codes of conduct, has not had the desired affect and that further action may be required.”

PBI-Mexico further notes: “PBI believes that a Binding Treaty has the possibility to contribute to greater accountability for companies in relation to human rights abuses and could potentially lead to greater protection of human rights defenders working on business and human rights cases throughout the world.”

For more on this, please see: PBI engaged in UN processes on human rights and transnational corporations (October 2019); Peace Brigades International and the call for a Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and human rights (May 2020); and in Spanish on the PBI-Mexico website Brigadas Internacionales de Paz y el llamado a la creación de un Tratado Vinculante sobre empresas transnacionales y derechos humanos (June 2020).

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