The first session of the Intergovernmental Working Group: an appraisal


Human Rights Council resolution 26/9 established the intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises and was right to recognise the relevance of civil society participation in its process. Nonetheless, the modalities of the IGWG itself could be enhanced by the next session in order to better integrate civil society interventions into the debate and give them an equal footing to those of States.

See also article below: the voice of civil society must remain central to IGWG

Human rights defenders and businesses: the elephant in the room?

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By Geneviève Paul, Head of Globalisation and Human Rights Desk at FIDH

During the first session of the Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) tasked with the elaboration of an international instrument on human rights and business, CSOs from all over the world joined forces and actively participated: they brought first-hand experience and in-depth analyses pointing to the shortcomings and inadequacy of existing accountability frameworks. Their strong presence is a testament to a global civil society demand for an instrument that would succeed in helping to prevent and remedy corporate human rights abuses. It is also a testament to persistent corporate-related human rights abuses; to the lack of access to justice in the majority of the cases and to increasing trends of criminalization of social protests and attacks against those trying to protect their communities and the environment.

Two months ago in New York, 193 countries members of the United Nations unanimously adopted an ambitious set of Sustainable development Goals, the blueprint for the world's development in the next 15 years. Worth noting here is Goal 16: access to justice for all as well as accountable and inclusive institutions are rightly seen as a prerequisite for peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.  On the ground, what we rather witness are land rights defenders being more and more subjected to harassment and killings in contexts of unbridled so-called “development”, the proliferation of restrictive laws against independent NGOs and, by striking contrast, amazingly permissive legal environment for businesses.[1]

If States are serious about achieving sustainable development through peaceful and inclusive societies, the situation of human rights defenders must be addressed when discussing business and human rights at the Human Rights Council. The absence of key States during the first IGWG session is regrettable and must be addressed for this process to be successful.

That States such as Norway and Ireland – champions in promoting HRD's protection and supporting CSOs against global tendency of shrinking civic space - actively participate in this debate is all the more important. States need to support CSOs in making visible the situation of HRDs and the need for a future instrument on business and human rights to address what defenders are calling for: remediation, which includes effectively preventing repetition.

Likewise, all States, including those leading the IGWG process, must show commitment or at least their good faith, and start by taking immediate measures at home to ensure that human rights defenders can act freely, without fear of reprisal.

FIDH's upcoming report on the criminalization of human rights defenders as a regional phenomenon in Latin America, to be published at the next session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights under the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT joint programme), together with some OMCT and FIDH's members, once again demonstrates how criminal law is being misused to muzzle HRDs. And it unfortunately does not come as a surprise that many of the documented cases concern defenders targeted in the context of business activities.

The protection of human rights defenders and ensuring corporate accountability are in dissociable. Ignoring this evidence is ignoring the elephant in the room.


[1] As analysed by Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and in his last report to the UN General Assembly, « Sectoral equity, A stimulus plan for civic space », UN Document A/70/266.



The voice of civil society must remain central to the IGWG

Article disponible en français ici.

Lea este artículo en español aquí.

By Ben Leather, ISHR Advocacy, Training and Communications Manager

Human Rights Council resolution 26/9 established the intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises (IGWG) and was right to recognise the relevance of civil society participation in its process. Whether communities documenting and denouncing abuses carried out in the name of business; individual victims demanding remedy for violations; or NGOs working to prevent abuses and mitigate their impact when they occur, human rights defenders are the motors for change on the ground and should provide the moral compass for IGWG negotiations.

Both Ecuador, as Chair of the IGWG, and the OHCHR secretariat made important efforts to facilitate the participation of defenders at the first session, but must do more to safeguard their ongoing contribution.

For starters, better preparation of the IGWG will allow for broader and stronger civil society input. It is commendable that Ecuador often engaged Geneva-based civil society regarding plans for the session. Nonetheless, the IGWG’s proposed plan of work was circulated just a week before proceedings, with panellists confirmed at the last minute, making it impossible for grassroots activists to arrange travel to Geneva and for NGOs to tailor submissions and interventions to specific panels. Early next year, the next draft plan of work should be subject to informal consultations with States and civil society, in order to be published well ahead of schedule.

What is more, civil society participation can be enhanced by institutionalising and building upon some good practises seen in July. Resolution 26/9 contained no budget for webcasting, something which must be rectified in any future resolutions on the treaty process. Ecuador, however, paid to live-stream the first session, meaning that human rights defenders around the world could follow the debate, whilst guaranteeing an audio-visual record of proceedings. This practise must be maintained.

Prior to the session, some had argued that participation should be opened beyond those NGOs accredited with ECOSOC consultative status by the UN, given the relevance of the issue for grassroots activists and communities. However, the majority of civil society voices at the first session appeared happy with the compromise arranged by Ecuador of allowing non-ECOSOC accredited organisations to make written submissions prior to the IGWG, whilst limiting verbal interventions to accredited NGOs. Nonetheless, the window for receiving submissions was narrow, leaving many defenders unable to deliver contributions on time. In future, civil society should be given several weeks to send such contributions, which must then be integrated into the session’s report.

The modalities of the IGWG itself could be enhanced by the next session, in order to integrate civil society interventions into the debate and give them an equal footing to those of States. At the first session, civil society was limited to interventions towards the end of each panel, whereas they should be interspersed with those of States to ensure dynamic debate, as happened during the Council’s institution-building process. Several diplomats commented that the interventions of civil society pulled discussion away from politics and towards practical needs and solutions. What better, then, than to integrate those interventions into the intergovernmental debate itself?

The Chair can adapt modalities as she sees fit, and all States which value civil society interventions should actively encourage this evolution, regardless of their political position towards other aspects of the treaty process.

Civil society space was briefly threatened in July, as the Ecuadorian Ambassador decided to merge all NGO interventions from two panels, whilst postponing others. In future, guarantees must be made that NGOs will speak to the panels they have signed up to, whilst they also should not be subjected to time limits where States are not.

Finally, given that those who work on violations related to business are some of the most at-risk in the world, the Chair and secretariat must put in place a clear process to prevent acts of intimidation or reprisals against individuals participating, or seeking to participate, in the IGWG. This process should include methods to address alleged cases of intimidation or reprisals directly with the concerned State or non-State actors, including business, in order to seek guarantees of no-repetition.

The treaty will only be useful if it responds to the needs and demands of victims and defenders. Therefore if States are serious about ending violations in the context of business, they must act to ensure these voices remain central to the IGWG.


In the weeks and days leading up to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by leading experts including human rights defenders, UN representatives, diplomats, businesses and international NGOs. Each article will include an analysis of the important role of human rights defenders and will be compiled in a special edition of ISHR’s Human Rights Monitor, to be launched in English, French and Spanish on November 9. The views expressed in the pieces are personal and do not necessarily represent the position of ISHR.



  • Corporate accountability
  • United Nations
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • Intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations, business and human rights
  • Ecuador