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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Trocaire Human rights defender Berta Cáceres was shot dead by hired hitmen in March 2016, two days before her 45th birthday, after years of threats linked to her opposition of the 22-megawatt Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River in Honduras. Her daughter Bertha Zuniga Cáceres (28) stands beside a mural of her mother.

Opinion The EU's climate weakness this week will be welcomed by the biggest polluters

Trócaire’s Caoimhe de Barra says the EU watering down of legislation on big polluters this week was a huge disappointment.

THIS WEEK THE EU missed a vital opportunity to agree strict new rules aimed at ending appalling human rights and environmental abuses connected to corporate activities around the world.

It was disheartening to see member states water down the text of the draft EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, a law that has the potential to end appalling human rights and environmental abuses caused by big business such as child labour, land grabs, deforestation and oil spills.

If EU member states had acted to address the profound weaknesses in the draft law, it could have been the game changer to prevent corporations from exploiting people and damaging the environment. It could have cleaned up corporate value chains and allowed victims of harm to take companies to court in Europe.

‘Watered down’

However, an already flawed draft law was weakened even further in a last-minute push, initiated by France, which watered down the text to shield companies producing pesticides, weapons or surveillance technology from scrutiny for the harms their products and services create.

In addition, the draft law leaves the inclusion of the financial sector in the legislation at the discretion of each member state, something which will lead to market fragmentation and a ‘race to the bottom’.

To its credit, Ireland, represented at the meeting by Minister of State Dara Calleary, voted against the French move. But the weakened text is now adopted and will become the EU Council’s position during the forthcoming negotiations with the Commission and the EU Parliament. As it stands the directive will leave victims of corporate harm exposed and struggling to seek justice.

Minister Dara Calleary should be commended for standing against the efforts by other EU member states to water down this proposal. He argued for a broader range of business activity to be covered, as well as a greater focus on gender, but he was unfortunately voted down. This is incredibly disappointing for the communities Trócaire works with who are on the frontlines of corporate exploitation.

Big business

Businesses themselves were in favour of strong legislation. In February, over 100 high profile companies, investors, business associations and initiatives, including IKEA, Primark, Danone and Patagonia, called for an ambitious due diligence directive from the EU. This legislation could ensure legal clarity and a level playing field for business, with sensible obligations on companies proportionate to their size and sector.

In my work with Trócaire, I have visited many communities around the world, who despite living next to great natural wealth, are suffering from corporate exploitation. From Honduras to Palestine to Myanmar, I have sat with many people as they have told me similar stories.

Mining activities poisoning rivers. Swathes of rainforests being cut down. Communities face violent forced evictions, land grabs, brutal physical attacks and even murder. I’ve learned that often it is women and indigenous peoples who face the brunt of corporate exploitation.

Most of us in Ireland have become deeply uncomfortable with the idea that many of the products we buy, such as our gadgets and garments, might be contributing to human rights violations and climate breakdown around the world. The Irish public wants to see stronger laws to tackle this issue of unethical and unaccountable corporations. A recent Ipsos/MRBI poll shows that 81 per cent of Irish people support stronger laws on corporate abuse. Many Irish people are also choosing to switch off the World Cup, where thousands of migrant workers have reportedly died in Qatar building stadiums.

For years we have allowed corporations to grow in power and influence, with profits soaring for the few. Indeed, when you look at the climate crisis, a 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 companies, including the largest oil, coal and gas firms, have been the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

The fact that there were more fossil fuel lobbyists attending the COP27 climate talks in Egypt than representatives of the ten nations most impacted by the climate crisis combined is a reflection of the outsized power and influence of corporations.

This monumental power imbalance between huge corporations and local communities needs to be addressed urgently. When communities seek justice, they are invariably in a David & Goliath situation.

Corporations have been effectively allowed to police themselves and voluntary approaches are simply not working. This is precisely why the new Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence directive needs to be strong and provide meaningful protection for people we work with on the frontlines. There is public support for strong legislation from citizens, civil society and the corporate sector itself.

Ireland has a very strong track record as a human rights champion on the global stage, and we often punch above our weight. While the developments this week are disheartening, this is not over yet.

Our MEPs now have the opportunity to strengthen this law before a final agreement will be reached by the EU institutions in 2023. We need to rescue this law and stand with the exploited, the voiceless and the dispossessed.

Caoimhe de Barra is chief executive of Trócaire, the overseas development agency.

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