Home >Opinion >Business as usual on human rights?

The battle continues for a binding United Nations treaty to curb human rights violations by transnational businesses. An intergovernmental working group will meet in Geneva this July to present the pros and cons of such a treaty.

It will be interesting to watch how the official Indian position is articulated. This considers the fact that the government back home has displayed zeal in dealing with matters of business and human rights with a sledgehammer when a nutcracker would do. The land acquisition bill which was referred to a joint committee of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha this past week—and which in letter and spirit is a how-to on violating human rights—is one such example.

Last June, at the 26th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, India voted yes to “establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights". It joined countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, South Africa, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Vietnam to do so. (Ecuador and South Africa, among the earliest votaries of a such a binding treaty, had moved the resolution). The vote was carried by 20 Yes votes and 13 abstentions overriding the 14 No votes from the other side of the economic fence—among others, the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, and several European Union heavies led by Germany and France.

The treaty’s purpose is essentially to bolster the guiding principles on business and human rights that the UN’s human rights council endorsed in 2011. Built on the precept of “protect, respect and remedy", it urges governments to protect human rights values in business, urges businesses to respect human rights, and encourages remedial mechanisms to aid victims of human rights abuses by businesses.

Whatever the National Democratic Alliance government may try and do to suppress such matters—accompanied by various state governments, irrespective of party affiliations, with a dubious record of mistreating the project-targeted and project-affected—the agenda is here to stay.

It won’t be surprising if India now begins a drift to the side of the developed nations in this matter.

There is already criticism about the idea of such a binding instrument. And critics are ranged along both sides of the fence.

Some find it shallow. “There needs to be stronger human rights rules for business, but the UN’s decision to move ahead with the development of an international treaty that only covers transnational corporations is compromised by the opposition of key governments and its narrow mandate," Human Rights Watch commented after last year’s vote. “The UN’s decision is too narrow since it only focuses on transnational corporations and will not address national or other businesses that should also be required to respect human rights." (This is significant. The Yes win, which some critics call a “plurality" of votes, not a majority, was only carried after Ecuador and South Africa agreed to the removal of national companies—as distinct from transnational companies—from the wording of the text. This also led India, a fence-sitter, to vote Yes.)

In January this year, Amnesty International raised the pitch by stating that transnational corporations already had rights; the need was for a global treaty on their responsibilities.

On the other side are ranged those who believe such a binding treaty is impractical and, therefore, unnecessary—this school of thought has become even more vociferous since last year’s vote.

Indeed, the guiding force of the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights, John Gerard Ruggie, has weighed in with this lot. In a paper presented at the Harvard Kennedy School in January, Ruggie was brutal and pointed to “something fundamentally flawed with the proposed approach". One is that the treaty negotiations will simply drag on. “Ecuador, the main force behind the proposal, estimates that negotiations could take a decade or more." The net result could be that the process will either be dumped, or, pressured by businesses, would not be ratified by even those governments which signed such a treaty.

Another development may lead to finessing on account of legal definitions of transnational businesses. “By 2025, nearly half of the Global Fortune 500 firms are expected to be domiciled in emerging market countries," said Ruggie, “further narrowing the North-South divide that some have sought to resurrect in support of the current treaty initiative."

The July meeting will provide some indication as to India, and the world’s direction.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout