Professor Martha O’Hagan, Trinity Business School, discusses the human rights potential of a second Irish National Action Plan
The Department of Foreign Affairs launched its first three year National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights in Ireland in 2017, and in 2018 an Implementation Group was formed, comprised of industry representatives, civil society groups and academics to monitor and oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report.
Progress has been slow, with limited impact on the awareness of issues of human rights in Irish businesses, or their level of compliance with the UN Guiding Principles. A 2020 benchmarking report from the Trinity Centre for Social Innovation highlighted an abysmally low level of human rights awareness and intent in Irish firms and semi-state companies.
There is now an opportunity to create a more ambitious second National Action Plan which considers the global, EU and Irish context, particularly in relation to legislative developments, and to include further initiatives aimed at setting examples and establishing clear guidelines for Irish businesses. As a general planning principle, the Trinity Centre for Social Innovation urges the Department of Foreign Affairs to put in place clear timelines and lines of responsibility for all relevant departments to engage and deliver individually and collectively.
We propose that the following five recommendations be included for the second National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.
The plan should commit to a roadmap for Irish legislation for mandatory reporting by all businesses operating in Ireland in relation to their human rights and environmental performance. It should be cognisant and inclusive of the impact of business activities on affected communities, women, minorities and human rights defenders. The plan should also commit to engaging in the UN Treaty process, as part of a coherent governmental approach to Business and Human Rights.
2) Government Procurement:
The plan should establish a principle that all government contracts include a condition that bidders must demonstrate compliance with the UN Guiding Principles. This should be done through the Office of Government Procurement and could be implemented in stages, with an initial requirement that companies provide a statement of their compliance, which must later be independently verified. Northern Ireland provides an example of how this could be done having published a binding Procurement Guidance Note on Human Rights in Public Procurement launched in January 2019.
3) Semi-States as exemplars:
We strongly suggest that semi-state enterprises be encouraged to take the lead on Business & Human Rights, providing role models for private sector businesses. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act’s Public Sector Duty requires public bodies (including semi-states) to assess relevant equality and human rights issues, address these through policies, plans and actions, and to report on its progress. This duty was highlighted in the TCD Centre for Social Innovation 2020 report.
4) Awareness raising initiatives:
The plan should seek to promote much greater awareness within government and businesses of the UN Guiding Principles and the processes necessary to comply with their responsibilities on human rights and more broadly, Responsible Business Conduct, including a broader range of environmental and social issues. The Department of Foreign Affairs published a ‘Toolkit’ for businesses on its website and this Toolkit was promoted via webinars attended by business owners, but awareness of this Toolkit should be increased with particular focus given to SMEs as well as the larger corporations operating in Ireland.
5) Reporting on compliance:
The plan should engage an independent verification organisation to report every 2 to 3 years on compliance with the UN Guiding Principles by all businesses operating in Ireland above a certain size and/or in particular industries. This was already successfully piloted in 2020 in the Benchmarking report produced by Trinity Centre for Social Innovation. Ongoing reporting could be funded through a voluntary contribution by all companies included in the reporting net.
We strongly encourage that these recommendations be included in Ireland’s second National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, setting out clear goals and objectives to be implemented by the specified responsible parties during the life of this plan, which should be monitored and assisted, where possible, by the members of the Implementation Group. This will also ensure alignment by Ireland with objectives of the UN Guiding Principles.