human rights & business (and a few other things)

The Colombian National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights: from Regional Milestone to Effective Local Implementation

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It is a pleasure to welcome Germán Zarama on Rights as Usual. Germán is a Senior Researcher at the Regional Representation of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (CREER-IHRB). He is a lawyer and holds an M.A in International Relations (University of Bologna), specialized in Public Management for Development (IADB)). He can be contacted on zarama.germa[email protected] or on Twitter @germanzarama. This post is his.

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On December 9, 2015, Colombia adopted a National Action Plan on Human Rights and Business (NAP), as a three-year public policy instrument that focuses on harmonizing protection and guarantee of human rights with economic development. It was the first South American, and indeed the first non-European, State to do so.

This was a milestone in a region where human rights defenders, many of whom work on business and human rights issues, are under serious threat. The adoption of Colombia’s NAP is also remarkable because it occurred at the same time as the historic Peace Agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was being negotiated. The peace process used conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies where private actors were meant to play an important role. Reconciling this process with a plan on business and human rights thus represented an important challenge.

As we are approaching the end of the three-year period and the Government recently released a Follow up to the NAP - Second Report 2017-2018 (available in Spanish), this blog post reviews progress and remaining challenges.

Background

In 2011, the Colombian Government set up the National System of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in order to “coordinate rules, policies, entities and institutions at the national and territorial levels and thus promote the respect and guarantee of human rights and the application of international humanitarian law”. They also established an inter-governmental Working Group whose function was to provide an inter-agency space to address issues that link businesses to human rights. The aim was to build a public policy on the subject, and coordinate effective actions among the competent entities.

The National System led to the adoption of a Comprehensive Public Policy for Human Rights in 2013, followed in 2014 by the Human Rights National Strategy for 2014-2034. The NAP was adopted within this framework.

NAP’s Achievements

  • An Inter-Institutional Working Group on Human Rights and Business and an Advisory Commission were set up and have held several meetings (5 in the last year alone). They are important forums for discussion and can provide advice.
  • Face-to-face training was offered, and freely accessible virtual training platforms in business and human rights were developed, thanks to joint work between international stakeholders, the government, and civil society.
  • To encourage the corporate due diligence process, different context documents were developed and made available to businesses that operate, or are going to start operations, in the country, so that they have enough information about the human rights situation, with emphasis on local risks.
  • Finally, the Government is promoting a human rights and peace agenda within the business sector (as part of the Peace Agreement implementation) where the goals of the NAP are aligned with the objectives and contents of post-conflict strategies such as the Development Programs with Territorial Approach (PDETs) and intervention in Areas Most Affected by the Conflict (ZOMAC), both fundamental for the development of vulnerable territories. This involves the promotion of responsible business activity in post-conflict zones.

Remaining Challenges

  • Business and human rights matter require a solid articulation between national and local policies. Although there has been progress on this point, there are few policies at the level of small or intermediate cities. The NAP is still not known in many cases and it is necessary to generate awareness about it.
  • Strengthening the conditions of security for social leaders working on issues of business and human rights is probably the greatest and most serious challenge. Since the Peace Agreement was signed, more than 330 human rights defenders were assassinated.
  • There is still a lot of work to be done to guarantee effective judicial and non-judicial remedy mechanisms. Despite having a mapping and an initial proposal (prepared by the Regional Centre for Responsible Business – CREER, regional representation of the Institute for Human Rights and Business) the judicial sector has not yet activated the routes necessary to deal with business and human rights cases. To make this happen, the Ministry of Justice needs to strengthen national policies on both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.

Conclusion

The Colombian NAP was adopted at a particularly delicate time for the country. Colombia has been experimenting with different transition mechanisms that seek to establish peace conditions in the regions that historically have been affected by the armed conflict. In this context, it is worth highlighting the progress that the human rights and business policy has made possible, and the large number of actors that have joined the discussions and started to work on implementation actions.

However, especially in conflict regions, more concrete actions are needed, as there are still conflicts directly or indirectly associated with business activity. Many community-based organizations have indicated it is time for change. They call for the NAP to be strengthened, which probably means moving from a voluntary to a binding approach regarding business commitments, especially in matters such as the protection of human rights defenders.

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