UN Human Rights Council Binding Treaty; A stand for global justice and human rights

Written by: Stephen O’Brien

In 1972, on the 4th of December, President Salvador Allende of Chile, was elected despite huge opposition and US interference, took the rostrum of the (UN) United Nations General Assembly in New York. Allende called for global action against the threat from transnational corporations, that do not answer to any state, any parliament or any organisation representing the common interest. President Allende subsquently called for a “Code of Conduct for TNCs”.

Less than a year later, Allende was killed in General Augusto Pinochet’s coup, which was the beginning of a brutal 17-year dictatorship and turned Chile into a laboratory of free market fundamentalism.(1)

“44 years on, all over the world people are standing up and saying enough to the unchained power of multinational companies to dodge taxes, grab land and resources on the cheap and rip the heart out of workforces and communities.” Last year, Jeremy Corbyn, British Labour Party Leader, reiterated his parties support for this binding treaty during his address to UN officials, at a meeting on human rights and international cooperation, in Geneva, Switzerland. (1)

Current human rights abuses that are taken to court are inhibited due to the absence of an international judicial system, which makes it inconvenient for victims to attain justice in a court of law. This occurs due to a process by which a company consistently moves the case from one country to another that is within their supply chain, based in another jurisdiction leading to a beginning of a new court case all over again, in a vicious circle.

– United Nations Human Rights Council Binding Treaty –

In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) began working on a treaty on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights. This occurred due to the demand by over 600 organisations worldwide, united in the Treaty Alliance, to develop a new treaty to stop corporate human rights abuses.

The treaty proposes to radically improve respect for human rights in the supply chain of transnational corporations by introducing binding mechanism to hold companies accountable under international law.

The process for implementing a binding treaty in regards to business and human rights is only in its inception. The UNHRC launched an open ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations (TNCS) and other business enterprises specifically focuses on human rights. (2)

This group is comprised of several countries that hold seats on the Human Rights Council, who are proposing a binding treaty that will hold TNCS accountable for their human rights abuses within their international supply chains.

Worldwide representatives supporting the establishment of a binding treaty on transnational corporations and other businesses in relation to human rights – Click here to see signatories

The group which is pioneered by Ecuador met for their third during October 2017, in Geneva. The meeting delved into the treaty’s scope, the subsequent obligations that TNCS would have to adhere too and how this would be finally be enforced.
This would significantly improve and build upon the UNS’s existing voluntary guidelines on business and human rights, as large- multinationals will be bound by international law meaning they would be held accountable for human rights abuses in their supply chain.

At the end of 2017, Anne Van Schaik, a finance campaigner from the Friend of the Earth Europe wrote an interesting article for Euractiv, were she examined another example of corporate exploitation, which showed a binding treaty would be beneficial during this type of case –

“Take the case of Socapalm in Cameroon: For the past ten years, communities in Cameroon have been trying to stop the violations of their rights and the pollution of their environment by the palm oil company which is a subsidiary of transnational agribusiness giant SOCFIN.Supported by local organisations, they seized national contact points (NCPs) in Paris and Brussels. The company refused to comply with the NCPs’ recommendations. After several unsuccessful attempts to make Socapalm respect the rights of communities, the Belgian NCP issued a statement a few weeks ago regretting the multinational’s refusal to comply and ending the procedure. Victims are now left without any means of redress and condemned to suffer systematic violations of their rights every day.” (3)

Throughout the complete supply line of TNCS from subsidiaries – suppliers, genuine corporate accountability must apply to all these entities activities. The UNHRC seeks to end the impunity corporations currently avail of when violating human rights or wrecking the environment, as can be seen by the mineral-driven conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (4)



This treaty has the potential to allow developing countries to sue foreign companies, ( Example: US company in US courts for human rights abuses in Latin America) who commit negligent policies exploiting these developing nations. (2)

Unfortunately, not many member states in Europe have expressed support for the UNHRC binding treaty. EU member states currently holding seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council include: Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. (2)

Dorothy Guerrero, in an article for CADTM.org, which lays some background into how global corporations experienced a growth of favourable policies in the last thirty years –

“There has been a proliferation of policies starting with the Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1990s, promoted by the World Bank and other international financial institutions or IFIs. The combinations of economic, political and legal infrastructures created by IFIs and the global trade and investment regimes produced the current world order wherein corporations control trade globally. It is very difficult for states to limit corporate power because TNCs have shaped the very laws of our current global order.” (7)

– ISDS – ICS  – Free Trade Agreements – 



A recent free trade agreement, the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) that has entered into the process of provisional application has a mechanism for TNCS to sue foreign government for a potential loss of profits, if they introduce policy that affects their forecasted profits.

This mechanism is actually an arbitration tribunal not a court with judges and lawyers but with corporate arbitrators, who are allowed consult with the corporations, who are suing nation states. (6)

This system only allows foreign corporations sue nations states, as national governments are unable to sue corporations some have claimed this binding treaty could be a reform that can ensures protection for developing nations and people of the world, as we enter a new chapter in 2018.

– Challenges – 

Two challenges for creating this binding treaty are the following; firstly, there will be a high start up cost of creating the international court system that would enforce the UN’s prospective binding treaty.

Secondly, trying to get communal agreement between various nations and TNCS will not be an easy task as can be seen by the sizeable number of countries that voted against Ecuador resolution or either decided to abstain – “Fourteen countries, including France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the US voted against Ecuador’s resolution and another 20 abstained.” (5)

Extract from “GUE/NGL MEPs are calling on EU member states that are represented in the Human Rights Council to support a binding treaty that would have a real impact on the lives of millions of people. The MEPs are also calling for support from parliamentarians around the world via the Inter-parliamentary Initiative for a UN Binding Treaty.”

This binding treaty has a long way to go before it can be implemented, which means CSO’s, NGO’s, politicians, people and companies, must find some middle ground to create a consolidated text that is acceptable for all parties going forward and is based on the requirement for global corporate accountability when human rights violations occur.

Word Count – 1,233

Ways to get involved

The Inter-parliamentary Initiative for a UN Binding Treaty

Jeremy Corbyn

“If parliamentarians from around the world put their support behind this treaty it would send a strong signal to the members of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council that the whole world wants this treaty to become a reality.
That is why GUE/NGL MEPs created the Inter-parliamentary Initiative for a UN Binding Treaty which asks parliamentarians from around to world to show their support for a binding treaty.”

Ask your national and regional parliamentarians to sign today!

– How you can help to make it happen –

Contact your country’s representative on the UN Human Rights Council and ask them to support a binding (not voluntary) treaty.

Ask your national and regional parliamentarians to sign the Inter-parliamentary Initiative for a UN Binding Treaty.

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– Research Notes – 

Reference 1 – https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/the-corbyn-doctrine

Reference 2 – http://www.guengl.eu/bindingtreaty

Reference 3 – https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/opinion/un-treaty-negotiations-a-chance-for-the-eu-to-champion-human-rights/

Reference 4 – https://www.hrw.org/news/2006/08/01/democratic-republic-congo-brink

Reference 5 – http://theconversation.com/how-multinational-companies-keep-avoiding-the-threat-of-regulation-38795

Reference 6 – http://s2bnetwork.org/isds-courting-foreign-investors/

Reference 7 – http://www.cadtm.org/Structural-Adjustment,1133

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