On May 26, 2021, the Ministry of Justice of the German Land of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Representation of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to the European Union organised an online discussion on the planned Human Right Due Diligence initiative.
Justice Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Biesenbach linked the HRDD initiative to the Green Deal and also to the recent decision of the German Federal Constitution Court. The latter recently ruled that climate policy can become highly relevant for human rights to freedom. And freedom rights are something to which future generations and people worldwide—not only in Germany—are entitled. He underlined the aim to protect human rights and promote sustainable business practices among European companies and called for a a reliable legal framework to implement international due diligence concepts.
Dr. Susanne Knöfel, Deputy Head of Unit of DG JUST A2, underlined that the call for an initiative on HRDD has come from various institutions, member states, civil society but also from companies, to introduce a legal regulation in order to achieve a so-called level playing field and legal certainty. The Commission aims at promoting sustainability and resilience in corporate decision-making and to support companies in sustainable business. The holistic approach: due diligence obligations for companies on social human rights and environmental aspects within the framework of their own initiatives and the value chain supplemented by obligations for company management. In doing so, the Commission's thinking would build on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Principles for Multinational Enterprises. The aim is for companies to assess the impact of their actions on human rights and the environment and to prevent possible negative consequences.
Regarding law enforcement, Knöfel mentioned, on the one hand, on regulatory control and sanctions and, on the other hand, on the civil liability (not also criminal liability) of companies. The HRDD initiative would fit into the measures of the Green Deal and would have its full effect together with "sustainable corporate reporting". The Commission's proposal would now be presented in autumn 2021, after the planned adoption in the second quarter of 2021 had been delayed. By involving the Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, further perspectives, in particular from business practice, could be brought into the work on the proposal.
In the following discussions, several participants exchanged their arguments. The business-side, represented by Johannes Pöttering, CEO of the NRW business association, argued that European companies , especially SMEs, would get overcharged.
On the other hand, Prof. Dr. Stefanie Lorenzen, board member of Germanwatch e.V., argued against a voluntary approach, which hasn’t delivered yet.
However, it was agreed by all participants that the EU must be committed to the issue of sustainable economy and respect for human rights. She also highlighted the immense role of SMEs, being the majority of European companies, and argued that the duties could be adapted to the proportionality principle according to their possibilities.
Find the full summary of the event here.
Watch the recording of the discussions here.