The process to produce a binding treaty on business and human rights has entered its ninth year and should be close to completion. But the reasons why the treaty is important are also making it difficult to achieve: large corporations, along with many of the global north states where they’re headquartered, don’t want to have their hands tied. If there is to be a treaty they want low standards and weak compliance mechanisms. Civil society is working to maintain ambition, bringing to the debate its experience, expertise and ability to amplify the voices of those most affected by business-related human rights violations.

Not a day goes by without fresh news of human rights violations resulting from the actions of big business: from instances of the denial of basic labour rights and retaliation against workers’ attempts to organise to evidence of failure to meet basic standards resulting in disasters that ruin environments and claim lives.

But there’s another story, of civil society’s efforts to secure rights and seek access to justice for victims, and to win commitments from businesses to clean up their act.

One important form these efforts take is litigation, which has yielded countless victories over the years. But far more violations occur than can be addressed this way, and the challenge is that many are perpetrated by transnational corporations and their affiliates, which now account for around a third of global GDP and two thirds of international trade, standing beyond the boundaries of national jurisdictions.

Hence the civil society pressure to develop international standards to subject businesses – particularly transnational corporations – to human rights obligations and hold them accountable for their violations. Longstanding pressure resulted in a process at the United Nations (UN) to produce a legally binding treaty on business and human rights.

Currently in its ninth year, this is an open-ended process. However, because every day without the treaty is another day of impunity, civil society is pushing for states to get the treaty ready for signature and ratification by 2025. But there are many obstacles still ahead. Global north states in particular – where many of the biggest companies are headquartered – are working to delay progress, make the treaty less ambitious and even questioning whether it should be legally binding at all.

Voices from the frontline

Ivette González is Director of Strategic Liaison, Advocacy and Public Relations at Project on Organising, Development, Education and Research, a Mexico-based civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to promoting corporate transparency and accountability in Latin America.


We live in a world virtually ruled by capital. Since this hegemonic capitalist and patriarchal economic model has taken hold, it has become clear that whoever has the capital calls the shots.

When companies directly influence the decisions of state powers, be it the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government, or others such as international organisations or banking institutions that should operate for the public benefit, and instead put them at the service of the private and exclusive benefit of a few people and prioritise the creation and accumulation of wealth over human rights, it results in a phenomenon we call ‘corporate capture’. Corporate capture is observed on all continents and results in the weakening of the state and its institutions. The strength of the state needs to be restored and the treaty on business and human rights could contribute to this.

A legally binding international instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises seeks to curb violations committed by companies of multiple human rights such as the rights to health, freedom, privacy and access to information and the impunity with which they operate, which allows them to destroy the environment, territories, families and entire communities.

An international treaty would also be a unique development in that it would cover the extraterritorial activities of companies, such as the activities of companies that may be headquartered in a country in the global north but have operations in the global south. At the moment, in many instances and jurisdictions, companies are only self-regulating and are not accountable for their human rights abuses and violations, and the destruction they cause to life and the planet. Some states are making progress on regulations and policies, but there are still gaps at the international level. We want this treaty to address the huge gap in international law that allows corporate crimes to go unpunished.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Ivette. Read the full interview here.

The treaty process

The process was started by a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June 2014. This established an open-ended intergovernmental working group (IGWG) with the task of elaborating an ‘international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises’.

The IGWG’s chair was charged with preparing a first draft of the treaty that would become the basis for substantive negotiations starting at the third IGWG session.

The process proceeded as planned, with the IGWG chaired by the government of Ecuador, which along with South Africa had sponsored the draft UNHRC resolution. In September 2017 the IGWG chair issued a document, Elements for the draft legally binding instrument, that was discussed at the session held the following month. The IGWG Chair then produced a Zero Draft that received further input at the IGWG’s fourth session in October 2018.

Successive rounds of conversations took place over the following years resulting in revised drafts, the latest of which is the Third Revised Draft, published in August 2021 and discussed at the seventh and eighth IGWG sessions in October 2021 and 2022.

There are ongoing technical discussions on the draft articles, but most of the outstanding issues are mainly political discussions. For this reason, I think the process will take several more years.

FERNANDA HOPENHAYM, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

As it stands, the current draft reflects civil society’s influence, but objections from powerful states threaten to either weaken the text or block the process. To ensure this results in an instrument that is fit for purpose, civil society is calling for a binding treaty containing clear rules, including operational accountability and redress mechanisms.

A force for ambition

Civil society has played a decisive role at every step, from pushing for the process to begin to maintaining ambition as it progressed and urging it to stay on schedule for completion.

Since the early days, a major role has been played by the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), a collaborative initiative of more than 280 CSOs, social movements and activists from 75 countries working to secure economic and social justice. In 2013, ESCR-Net members at its Peoples’ Forum on Human Rights and Business outlined demands for a human rights-based approach to corporate regulation in a joint statement that would become the foundational statement of the Treaty Alliance.

The Treaty Alliance is a campaigning coalition mobilising for a treaty to regulate businesses and end human rights abuses, environmental harm and corporate impunity. Its statement calling for the creation of an IGWG to develop the treaty was backed by over 600 CSOs from around the world. ESCR-Net members and allies mobilised actions in over 20 capital cities and engaged with state representatives in Geneva. The 2014 UNHRC resolution creating the IGWG was the reward for these efforts.

Another key civil society player is the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity, known as the Global Campaign. Launched in 2012, it’s a network of over 250 social movements, CSOs, trade unions and local communities resisting land grabs, extractive mining, exploitative wages and environmental destruction caused by transnational corporations.

Once the battle to create the IGWG was won, civil society has mobilised to try to ensure a robust treaty emerges. It has advocated collectively at IGWG sessions and amplified the voices of affected communities, brought together experiences on the ground with expert knowledge, reviewed drafts and coordinated responses. It has consistently emphasised the disproportionate impacts of corporate abuses on Indigenous people, women and other excluded groups. And it has demanded more democratic spaces for civil society to engage with decision-makers and more leadership from global south states in the process.

This treaty should not be negotiated behind closed doors or with the private sector alone, as this would allow for the repetition of the same cycle of opacity and privilege that has brought us this far.


Civil society found an ally in the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, established by the UNHRC in 2011 to promote, disseminate and implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As with other UN mandates, the Working Group is composed of independent experts bringing with them diverse skills and experience across a wide range of countries, issues and sectors. Most of them are drawn from academia and they’re often sympathetic to civil society.

Splits and disagreements

Even as it passed, the resolution that created the IGWG didn’t reflect a strong consensus. A majority of UNHRC member states voted against it or abstained: the resolution was passed with 20 votes in favour, 14 against and 13 abstentions.

Voting patterns reflected an enduring divide between global south and global north states, and between more established and emerging economic powers. All the states that voted for the resolution were from the global south, with a prevalence of African states, along with two global south powerhouses, China and India. All the states that voted against were from the global north, with a prevalence of European states, alongside Japan and the USA.

These dividing lines haven’t changed much over time – although states split a little differently when the proposed treaty’s scope changed: initially it was suggested it focus exclusively on transnational corporations but its reach has been extended to encompass other business entities. But in the main, several global north states have consistently taken the side of the private sector. They’re trying to avoid a text they characterise as too rigid or prescriptive and pushing to reduce the treaty’s scope on key issues such as Indigenous people’s rights.

Civil society is siding with the bulk of global south states to demand higher standards and clear, enforceable obligations. Civil society is also encouraging more consistent participation from African states, which have in the main been much less involved than those from Latin America.

Divisions among states also remain on such issues as the prevention of harm and access to reparations, environmental safeguards, complaints mechanisms, statutes of limitation and international judicial cooperation.

Voices from the frontline

Fernanda Hopenhaym is chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.


My hope is that we will not be left with a treaty that sets out good intentions without establishing clear rules. As is the case in all negotiations of this nature, some of the issues civil society is calling for will probably be left pending. There is a lot to accommodate: the perspectives of states, the expectations of business and the private sector in general, and the demands of civil society and all rights holders.

I would expect a pretty good text, which in some ways reflects the character of the process, which has included a very strong civil society and social movements. From my perspective, the process has been sustained not only by the commitment of states to negotiate, but also by the impetus of civil society and dialogue among all involved.

But there is a long way to go before this treaty is adopted. It may still take several more years. There is a long way to go in the negotiations and regarding the content of the text.

Once the treaty is adopted, ratification will have to be pushed through. Let us remember that international treaties only enter into force when a certain number of states ratify them, and only those states that ratify them are bound by them. This is where I see a huge challenge ahead. Hopefully, once we get to produce a good, comprehensive text, the process of ratification will not be so slow and cumbersome.

For this to happen, we will need a strong civil society to push states to ratify the treaty so it enters into force and becomes binding on the signatory parties. Again, I would expect this process to be long and arduous, as the issue of human rights protection in the context of business is a thorny one, given that there are many interests at stake. What lies ahead will be a big challenge for all involved.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Fernanda. Read the full interview here.

But the treaty is too important to be left exclusively to states, and it definitely shouldn’t be up to business interests: those that have played such a big part in creating the problem can’t be expected to offer the solution.

Limited civil society voice in the process has been as much of a challenge as inadequate buy-in from powerful states. Within these limitations, while pushing for both ambition and speed, civil society is clear that ambition shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of a quick conclusion of the process, and will continue demanding the highest standards possible.

At the same time, civil society is realistic that any resulting treaty won’t be a magic bullet. There will still be a need for civil society advocacy and commitment on all fronts. But to make the treaty as good as it can be will depend on the influence civil society can exert in the process. There’s a need to enable civil society to bring to the debate its experience, expertise and ability to amplify the voices of those most affected by the human rights violations that continue to be perpetrated by businesses day after day.


  • The UN should enable more access for civil society to bring in the perspectives of those most affected by private sector human rights violations and help develop a treaty that effectively addresses them.
  • States should partner with civil society and integrate their experience and expertise into their proposals.
  • Civil society organisations, particularly in global south countries that have had little involvement in the process, should advocate for their states to become more vocal in pushing for an ambitious treaty.

Cover photo by Trócaire