On 23 November 2023, the Human Rights Ombudsman in the role of the national human rights institution, in collaboration with Focus, Association for Sustainable Development, and SBC – Slovenian Business Club, organised a panel discussion on human rights in business and industry. The respect and protection of human rights and the environment is no longer only an obligation of the state but also a responsibility of industry and business. The participants agreed that it is important for companies to assume responsibility for violating human rights and negative impacts on the environment and climate change along the entire value chain.
The first steps in recognising the obligation of companies for the respect of human rights and the environment were the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights from 2011. Based on these Guiding Principles, in 2019 Slovenia prepared the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Since then, only 23 Slovenian companies have signed this voluntary commitment to respect human rights. “It is obvious that the commitment was signed by only a handful of companies and that voluntary commitments lead to the limited implementation of due diligence, without consequences in case of determined violations. I believe that the commitment to respect of human rights in business and industry should be obligatory for all state-owned companies, which would, after all, demand from those responsible in the companies their accountability if violations are found. Thus, companies would have to commit to the implementation of due diligence concerning sustainability in all business processes. We also need legislation which would bind companies to implement due diligence concerning sustainability,” emphasised Ombudsman Svetina in the introductory discussion.
The participants dedicated a significant part of the discussion to the proposal of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), which was introduced by the European Commission in February last year. Ombudsman Svetina highlighted that he is striving for a strong European legal framework which will protect human rights and the environment. “Companies are obliged to protect human rights and the environment. It happens all too often in business practices that questions of protecting human rights and the environment remain overlooked. With the climate crisis in mind, it is clear that companies, too, must immediately change their strategies and operation. It is high time that a strong legislation is adopted on the level of the European Union, which will require due diligence of human rights standards and environmental protection, accountability from those responsible in the companies, and will afford victims effective legal protection. In the process of tripartite negotiations on the European level currently taking place in Brussels, I expect the government and the competent ministry to advocate the adoption of effective European legislation, even if that requires a change in national legislation in this field,” added Ombudsman Svetina.
The Ombudsman recommended to those responsible that the coordination of the implementation of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights be assumed by the Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport, which is the sectoral competent ministry. Namely, for four years this sector was headed and coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, which, in the Ombudsman’s belief, was not effective enough in this field since, after all, the operation of the Slovenian economy is not within the jurisdiction of this ministry.
Matjaž Han, Minister of the Economy, Tourism and Sport, highlighted: “The incorporation of the respect of human rights and the environment, as well as other sustainable aspects, into the operation of companies must be the foundation of operation of every society – what we advocate in our personal lives we also need to consistently advocate in business. I would be happy if good examples in the economy in the field of sustainability were to suffice and rules not be necessary. But the fact is that environmental and social responsibility and responsible management are becoming the legal norm in the EU. When transferring European directives into the Slovenian legal order we advocate a step-by-step approach because we know that every new rule also has an impact on their competitiveness. The fact is that each and every one of us is responsible for a better today and brighter tomorrow; and I would hope that companies in this case also find room for innovation and improvement of the existing business practices.”
Blaž Brodnjak, NLB Group CEO, pointed out that sustainable operation is one of the strategic pillars around which the future of the bank is being built. “We are one of the pioneers of sustainable operation and an example of best practice, both in Slovenia and the wider region, hence we are happy and proud to be an example and an inspiration for other actors in the field of sustainable business and human rights,” added Brodnjak.
Živa Kavka Gobbo from the Focus environmental organisation stressed that the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive will be the first act the goal of which is to ensure the respect of human rights and the environment along the entire value chain of companies operating in the European Union. “The process of coordination and negotiations must not undermine the essence of the legislation, which is to establish the accountability of companies for violations and influence on climate change. Our last analysis of reports from companies that signed the Commitment to respect human rights in business showed that none of the companies reported on due diligence among suppliers. The analysis confirms that voluntary commitments do not suffice and that we need strong legislation,” added the Focus’ president.
Igor Akrapovič, Vice-President of the SBC – Slovenian Business Club, hailed the planned introduction of rules stipulating a more consistent respect of human rights in business. However, he warned that we must not only think about how as a country we will check one thing off the list of things required of us by the European Union. It is important to think of a way which will efficiently limit and sanction infringers of human rights in business and principles of sustainability. As emphasised by Akrapovič, the story we are now faced with regarding the so-called stamping must not be repeated, when due to persistent offenders well known to inspection services of all possible rules, all companies in general are punished by unreasonable commands. “The majority of the most successful Slovenian companies have already been operating according to the principles of responsibility and sustainability. For this they do not need a law, they are guided in this direction by the realisation that there is no added value and penetrative and long-term growth without the awareness that everyone who is part of the business process must be appropriately rewarded and respected within it. The exploitation of workers, straining the environment, and violation of the legislation are obsolete “business models” decisively rejected by the SBC – Slovenian business Club.