On 18 September 2023, Ombudsman Peter Svetina called the 11th meeting of the Human Rights Ombudsman Council (Council), which was devoted to human rights in business and industry. Every year, the Ombudsman finds that the everyday life of Slovenian society brings many stories in which complainants report on how individual companies, large and small, operating in Slovenia violate human rights of the employees and consequently encroach on the wider social environment.
As Svetina said, the respect of human rights is an indicator of the social responsibility of a company and its business environment. He expects those responsible in the country to actively promote human rights and encourage companies to respect human rights in all business processes.
With the simultaneous occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic, catastrophic floods, and other extraordinary events and the recovery connected to them, human rights in business and industry are even more at the forefront. “Sustainable management of companies is the only right way to strengthen further development, since the interest of economic growth must simultaneously also consider the guaranteeing of a safe and healthy environment and fairly address the component of the sustainable development concept while also respecting human rights,” believes Ombudsman Svetina. Only when considering this, can we speak about ensuring and protecting human rights. Due to this, and the previously detected consequences of climate change in Slovenia and around the world, companies offering products and services on international markets, too, must assume responsibility for the respect of human rights and the environment. “This also presents an opportunity to underscore respect of human rights, labour rights, the environment, and health within the local and global operation of companies,” emphasised Svetina at the meeting.
The Ombudsman highlights that the state bears the positive obligation that Slovenian companies working in the Slovenian legal order, both in Slovenia and abroad, respect the rights and freedoms of individuals. With this goal in mind, five years ago the state adopted the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP) in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It is the duty of the state, as determined by the NAP, to demand through the enforcement of laws that business entities respect human rights and to estimate the appropriateness of such laws and the abolition of potential regulatory gaps. Based on these findings the NAP priority tasks were formed. “The purpose of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights is to strengthen the respect of human rights in economic activities. Only 24 companies have so far signed the Commitment to respect human rights in business operations. I advocate that this Commitment be signed by all companies with majority state ownership, since this would provide a proper example for the entire economy. Hence, I expect the state to actively promote human rights and encourage companies to respect human rights in all business processes. More and more often people turn to the Ombudsman who claim to have had their human rights violated in business and industry,” emphasised Ombudsman Svetina at the meeting.
Dr Dijana Možina Zupanc, the Ombudsman’s Deputy who heads the Human Rights Ombudsman Council, said that the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, in cooperation with other ministries and Government Offices, oversees the implementation of the NAP on Business and Human Rights. The Ombudsman, representatives of business and industry, unions, non-governmental organisations, and academia also participate. Every two years, the NAP predicts the overview of their implementation and the preparation of recommendations. On 17 June 2021, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia adopted with a decision the First Report on the Implementation of the NAP in Business for the period 2018 to 2020, while the second report is currently being prepared.
In February last year, the European Commission presented a Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Corporate Sustainability. It would address the gaps within the local and global operation of companies. The Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport plays an important role in adopting and transferring the said Directive. The positions that will be hereafter advocated by EU member states will be decisive for whether the new legislation contributes to effective environmental protection and respect of human rights.
The key points of the Directive, to which the Ombudsman draws attention during the adoption, are the following:
1. The scope of the Due Diligence Duty: A consensus needs to be reached regarding the answer to the dilemma of whether the Due Diligence Duty includes value or only the supply chain of companies.
2. Inclusion in the Due Diligence Duty: Clear definition is essential to determine which companies the Due Diligence Duty applies to. Are factors such as the size of the company, its sector, and potential acquired quality standards of operation decisive?
3. Human rights and environment protection standards for the preparation of Due Diligence: Which documents (especially international) must be considered in conducting Due Diligence in relation to sustainability?
4. The manner of preparing Due Diligence of sustainability: A dialogue with all the main stakeholders would contribute to the safety of the most vulnerable groups, therefore an agreement about the protocol of this duty is very important.
5. Access to legal remedies: Victims of human rights and environmental standards violations must be ensured effective legal protection. A company must be held responsible when due diligence that is not in accordance with the Directive leads to violations of human rights and damage.
“The Directive must protect human rights, dignity, labour rights, the environment, and the climate, and contribute to a resilient, sustainable economy and provide social, economic, and environmental justice. The Ombudsman has already turned to the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for its position on the proposal of the Directive with the above-stated emphases. We are still awaiting their answer,” explained Svetina.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Council members agreed that human rights are the minimum conditions which enable all people to preserve their dignity. They highlighted that the right to decent work must be ensured to everyone without discrimination and in all sectors, for everybody deserves to work in a healthy and safe environment and receive fair payment for that. Above all, we all have the right to health and to live in an environment which does not endanger the life and health of ourselves and our successors. They believe that in the future, much effort will have to be invested in achieving full enforcement of human rights in business. First and foremost, all economic entities completely or partially owned by the state should approach this as a good example for other parts of economy. The state itself should also be an example through the operation of the entire public sector. The Council supports the stated emphases which the government must consider in its next steps in adopting the Directive.