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9 November 2021

Ireland's need for corporate accountability legislation to protect human rights defenders

By Aisha Hamdulay and Hannah Storey

Coal used at the Moneypoint Power Plant in County Clare, operated by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), was problematically sourced from the Cerrejón mine in Northern Columbia for over 15 years until 2018. This was at the unseen expense of the indigenous peoples who live in the area, as well as human rights defenders raising concerns. The local community have suffered from poor health, contaminated water, and have faced consistent threats and intimidation for their opposition to the violation of their human rights in the process of coal mining. This is but one example of the impact of Irish linked corporate abuse of human rights and the environment across borders which goes unaccounted for, demonstrating the need for corporate accountability legislation in Ireland. All companies operating in Ireland, both Irish and non-Irish, need to be held accountable for their involvement in business related violations of human rights across borders.

Human rights defenders from affected communities who speak out critically against these business operations are adversely affected. Linking back to the global context, in 2020, a record high of 228 human rights defenders working on land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights were murdered, many of which were linked to business operations prioritising profit over people. Over 600 human rights defenders faced attacks for opposing business-related human rights abuses in 2020. One only has to reflect on the case of Berta Cáceres to understand why legislative accountability is needed to mitigate these effects early.

Berta was an internationally renowned human rights defender, murdered in 2016 after a long struggle opposing an internationally financed hydroelectric dam in Honduras, which was in part funded by European banks and companies . Her daughter, Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, now continues her mother’s struggle, and calls for stricter regulation of European companies operating and financing projects abroad, to prevent crimes like this from happening.

With an absence of legislative accountability, attacks on human rights defenders and human rights violations of affected communities will continue to go unaccounted for, allowing big companies to operate with impunity for the destruction and harm they cause. It is important that Irish citizens and residents are aware of how their day to day purchases, the energy heating their homes, and many parts of their daily lives are linked to human rights abuses abroad.

Coming back to the Cerrejón mine, a significant source of Ireland’s coal power supply for over 15 years, has been linked to the expulsion of up to 35 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, at times through violent evictions. A community member is quoted as saying “We are sacrificing our lives, the lives of our elderly and of our children for the commodity of the company and for those who live in Europe”.

The proposed legislation by the Irish Coalition on Business and Human Rights focuses on establishing a new legal duty for companies operating in Ireland to prevent adverse impacts on human rights and the environment by identifying and then addressing the human rights impacts of their business and supply chain. The proposed legislation would also hold companies liable if they do cause human rights impacts and allow access to remedy for victims.

Specifically in terms of human rights defenders and affected communities, meaningful engagement with key stakeholders is a crucial element of this process. By engaging with human rights defenders and other affected communities businesses can better identify their potential or actual human rights impacts throughout their supply chain. We’re asking that businesses ask, and crucially, listen to defenders, to help mitigate the risks they face. In many existing due diligence processes, ‘’meaningful engagement’’ can become a tick box exercise used to sign off due diligence requirements without actually implementing the recommendations of defenders and communities. The report proposes that meaningful engagement should therefore be an ongoing process, not a one off activity, and should be guided by international human rights standards.

Human rights defenders who are opposing harmful business operations do so at great risk of reprisals. They face the risk of retaliation for speaking out and taking action against human rights abuses, facing the threat of murder, physical attack, defamation, and other targeted attacks on relatives and other aspects of their lives (jobs, homes, travel bans). Corporate accountability legislation, therefore, needs to address the risks of reprisals for those who speak out, and those who participate in due diligence processes. Participating in due diligence processes – while on the one hand facilitates greater understanding and mitigation of impact - can have adverse impacts for those who voluntarily participate. Companies therefore need to assess the risks of retaliation in the due diligence processes with the direct input of human rights defenders, so that they can be mitigated and prevented.

The ESB sourced coal from the Cerrejón mine for over 15 years, taking no accountability or consideration for the lives it has affected. While coal is no longer sourced from the mine, half of the top 60 companies in Ireland scored below 20% in a study by Trinity College Dublin examining respect and compliance for human rights in business operations. While Ireland has become a hub for a number of head and regional offices for top foreign international companies - which have afforded the Irish economy a boost - at the same time, Ireland's human rights record could be affected by the complacency of non-action against the business operations of those companies which are in violation of human rights abroad. If we are to truly uphold Irish standards of respect for human rights, we must take accountability and hold those who are violating the human rights of others accountable.

The ‘’Make it Your Business’’ report by the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights outlines the proposed components of a corporate accountability law in Ireland which mitigates and addresses the adverse impacts of business operations on human rights by Irish companies and companies operating in Ireland. As a champion for human rights internationally, Ireland must move to adopt the proposed legislation and lead efforts around EU wide rules for companies who are violating human rights in relation to their business operations.

‘’Ireland is a country that has benefited hugely from the positive effects of opening our economy to globalisation. Yet now it is crucial that Ireland also plays a role in addressing the negative harms of corporate globalisation and supports transformative change. We are a country known as much for our championing of human rights as for being a country that is business-friendly. By introducing strong and effective Corporate Accountability Legislation, we can uphold our responsibility to hold business to account and by doing so also hold true to the human rights principles we champion globally.’’ - Make it Your Business Report.

- Read the full report at and find out more about the coalition at