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Governments at the UN’s Human Rights Council stunned companies last week when they voted to start negotiations on a treaty to address corporate responsibility for human rights abuses. If done right, this could lead to much-needed action by governments to approve common-sense rules on companies and ensure victims of corporate abuses can seek justice. Yet there are pitfalls as well.

It’s a polarizing issue, pitting many developing countries at the council, led by Ecuador and South Africa, against the United States and European Union. Critics warn it will draw the ire of some of the world’s largest companies. Western countries that are home to major multinationals have threatened to sit out the negotiations. There’s a real danger we could end up with a contentious treaty that doesn’t actually solve the problem.

That would be a shame: we need stronger human rights rules. Companies have been implicated in a litany of abuses around the world and almost never pay a price for them, because governments fail to impose even basic regulations, such as requiring businesses to review and monitor rights risks.

Three years ago, the council unanimously approved the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which included no firm requirements and no monitoring of progress. It’s no surprise that implementation has been woefully inadequate. Frustrated by continued inaction in the face of widespread abuses, activists mobilized to line up government support for a binding treaty.

The vote may have been premature. A fundamental flaw lies in Ecuador’s insistence that the treaty focus on multinational companies, even though any company can cause problems and most standards, including the UN principles, don’t draw this artificial distinction. Otherwise you could have a situation where an international apparel company was bound by human rights standards, but abusive local factories aren’t. A treaty with credibility should cover all businesses, whether they have ties to global brands or not. That doesn’t excuse governments from enacting national laws to protect workers and others affected by business gone bad, or to allow victims to seek justice in national courts.  

The treaty process represents an opportunity to better safeguard communities and individuals around the globe from abuses involving companies. Perhaps the best outcome is for the governments to negotiate transparently, consult widely with all stakeholders, and act in good faith. Politicizing this process would be an insult to victims and a squandered chance for human rights.

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