«Profit should not be an end in itself»

Guillaume Long; UN-Treaty Human Rights
Guillaume Long, Ambassador of Ecuador's Mission to the UN in Geneva.
Political article
The 3rd Session of an Inter-Governmental Working Group convened in October in Geneva, chaired by Guillaume Long. It is charged with elaborating an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and human rights. An interview.

Alliance Sud: Mr. Ambassador, how do you explain the extreme defensiveness of OECD countries, including Switzerland, towards the decision to draw up a binding UN instrument in the area of transnational corporations and human rights?

Guillaume Long: It is true that the attitude of certain OECD countries to UN Human Rights Council Resolution 26/9 of 2014 ranges from anxious to hostile. The discussions were tough, but there was already a markedly better atmosphere at the Working Group's third session. Whereas several countries still boycotted the first session, our diplomatic efforts have meanwhile borne fruit. The USA and Canada are still not on board, but Australia's presence signifies the participation of an important country in the deliberations.

The stakes are high, as it is ultimately about a world economic order that accords impunity to capital and large enterprises, which are not being held accountable for their actions. We are not against foreign direct investment (FDI), which plays a crucial developmental role. But private investments must respect human and labour rights as well as the environment, and this is not always the case.

The adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises represent significant headway in recent years. They are based on voluntary action. We realize that for some countries, the adoption of binding rules on human rights or even talking about it is still taboo – in stark contrast to investments, which they protect with regulations. This is a case of using different yardsticks; in this respect, the opinion of Ecuador and other countries differs considerably from that of OECD countries.

Major emerging countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa support this multilateral process. How can this be? After all, they and their firms are themselves now major global investors.

Those who have understood that we have no principled objection to investments, do support our work. Many countries in the South have been victims of irresponsible transnational corporations. I think of India and the Bhopal disaster or of apartheid in South Africa. But China too, whose companies are becoming increasingly active in developing countries – including Ecuador – has also experienced such exploitation. The aforementioned emerging countries hold entirely different positions on certain matters.

It is interesting that it is precisely the countries with the most regulations on workers' rights and environment protection – in Europe for example – that are opposing the introduction of binding worldwide rules. It is a myth that limitless deregulation is good for all, that the invisible hand of the market will regulate everything. Investors need qualified personnel, legal certainty and functioning institutions that are free of corruption. This is the only way that they can benefit from a level playing field in a favourable environment. Developing countries that share this view do favour the instrument.

Shouldn't a level playing field also be in the interests of big business? Why then are representatives of industry associations (ICC, IOE, BIAC, FTA/BSCI) opposed to work on the UN instrument?

These lobbyists do not speak for all enterprises. There are certainly global enterprises that do not shirk their responsibility. I hope that in future they will distance themselves from such spokespersons.

Investor rights began to be expanded as of the 1980s and international courts of arbitration and investment protection agreements were created, as there was no trust in the national courts of developing countries. Disputes between States and investors are therefore handled internationally – mostly in the interests of investors. Now that it is a matter of establishing competent bodies to prosecute human rights violations, obstacles are being created – that is a blatant contradiction! If such bodies were in the interests of big capital, they would have been introduced a long time ago.

Countries like Ecuador condemn this injustice. This has nothing to do with an anti-capitalist stance, instead it is about affirming that humaneness is more important than profit. Capital is one – albeit important – factor of development, but profit should not be an end in itself. That is one of the major debates of the early 21st century.

Switzerland made clear during the third session of the working group that it is interested in «possible synergies» between the «elements» of a binding UN instrument and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but that the implementation of these Guiding Principles takes priority. What is your view on this?

That is the position of many OECD countries, including the EU. It is a positive thing that Switzerland is leaving the doors open and is not adopting an aggressive stance. We view the UN Guiding Principles as an important step in this context, and they are also present as cross-cutting issues in the elements of an instrument that we have put forward. The Guiding Principles should not be used as a pretext to hinder the introduction of a legally binding instrument. Things could then get complicated, if certain countries – for which it is important that their companies respect human rights – were to entrench themselves behind the voluntary nature of measures so as to hamper the debate.

In February 2017 France adopted a law on human rights due diligence for enterprises, whereas in Switzerland such a law is expected to be introduced through a popular initiative. What is the role of this development in your work towards a UN instrument?

It is an inspiration! The French law is a step in the direction of binding measures and away from voluntary action. It is important for Switzerland and other countries to start work on similar legislation. The main element is the requirement of due diligence, which would apply throughout the entire value chain. The question of jurisdiction in the event of a breach of the duty of care is crucial. It cannot be that a multinational corporation is able to cause serious damage in a country and make off, as has been the experience of Ecuador and other countries. The Chevron/Texaco case has illustrated the near-impossibility of bringing the corporation before a US court. It must become possible to sue guilty corporations in the place where their headquarters are located.


Guillaume Long – an unusual career

Guillaume Long (40), son of a French mother and a British father, came to Ecuador in 1996. There he worked as a professor of history and international relations before joining the government of President Rafael Correa, where he held several ministerial positions, the last being that of Foreign Minister. In this capacity he also chaired the G77, a loose coalition of developing countries. Today, he heads Ecuador's Mission to the UN in Geneva.