Binding International Norms on Transnational Corporations (TNCs)

The CETIM has long had a firm commitment to the adoption of binding international norms on transnational corporations (TNCs) to end impunity for the human rights violations that they commit. It is now deeply involved in a campaign to get a new binding instrument at the Human Rights Council, together with the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity (Global Campaign), which brings together more than 100 social movements and organizations as well asa number of representatives of victims.

With the globalization of the economy, transnational corporations (TNCs) have become major and powerful actors, and their activities, directly or indirectly, have a huge impact on human rights.

TNCs benefit from a set of binding norms, arbitration tribunals and enforcement mechanisms that protect their interests. They can sue states even beyond national jurisdictions. At the same time, TNCs often manage to escape national jurisdictions by recurring to complex structures. And for now, no norms exist at the international level to hold them responsible for their human rights violations and to ensure access to justice for the victims of their activities. In many cases, especially when victims are from the Global South, impunity prevails.

Together with the American Association of Jurists (AAJ), the CETIM was one of the key actor in the working group of the former Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (a body of independent experts under the Human Rights Commission, the Councils predecessor) that developed draft Norms on the Responsibilities of TNCs and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights. Those draft Norms had their limitations but to date they remain the only binding text proposed at the international level. They were killed at the Commission on Human Rights in 2005, and voluntary and non-binding codes of conduct were instead promoted, culminating in 2011 in the adoption by the Human Rights Council of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

But how can one realistically expect to discipline the economy's most powerful actors through voluntary codes of conduct? Recent experience has shown that we cannot count on TNCs to self-regulate.

Throughout all those years, the CETIM has been very vocal in denouncing non-binding norms and voluntary codes of conduct as inadequate and ineffective. Through a number of case studies, it has documented human rights violations committed by TNCs and the impunity that continues to prevail because of the absence of binding norms at the international level.

A new dynamic started in 2013. Together with a number of other social movements and organizations, the CETIM undertook a new campaign in favor of a binding international instrument on TNCs and human rights. A larger coalition supporting a binding treaty (Treaty Alliance) was formed with organizations such as FIAN, the Transnational Institute (TNI), Friends of the Earth or Franciscans International, among others. A joint statement has been developed to support the process and has been signed by hundreds of organizations.

Side by side with its partners in the Global South and the Global Campaign, the CETIM engaged in borad advocacy work to convince the largest number of states to support this initiative. A number of representatives of victims of human rights violations committed by TNCs testified in the Human Rights Council and demonstrated that only a binding international instrument can end impunity. And mobilization paid off!

In September 2013, Ecuador presented to the Human Rights Council, on behalf of a group of 85 countries (African group, Arab Group, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kirghistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru), a statement supporting a legally binding instrument.

And in June 2014, a majority of the members of the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution presented by Ecuador and South Africa establishing an intergovernmental working group with the mandate of developing a legally binding international instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations. The mobilization of hundreds of social movements and organizations in Geneva and around the world was critical, at a moment when the pressures of western countries and the lobby of transnational corporations were undermining the support of some states.

The working group will hold its first session in July 2015 to define the elements, the scope, the nature and the form of the future international instrument. After having contributed to the opening of intergovernmental negotiations, the CETIM is now working together with the Global Campaign so that the victims of human rights violations committed by TNCs, in particular in the Global South, will be able to participate in the intergovernmental working group and make their voices and proposals heard.

For more information:

Latest news on human rights and TNCs

Newsletter n48 (August 2014)

Newsletter n47 (May 2013)

Newsletter n43 (August 2012)

Critical report n10 (December 2011) on transnational corporations

Booklet n2 (2005) on transnational corporations and human rights

 Proposed amendments for the Draft norms on responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to Human Rights (2003)