Advancing a Principled Approach: Human Rights and Environmental Integration in the EU Business Sector

Valeria Fappani |

This blog post summarises the contribution I submitted for the UACES 2024 Graduate Forum held this June in Amsterdam. I want to thank UACES for having organised and provided funds for attending this event!

 

Human rights constitute the core values of the European Union, enforceable both internally and externally. Through the Amsterdam Treaty-consolidated acquis communautaire, they have become a cornerstone of the EU law. Yet, the EU’s journey towards human rights inclusion in the treaties has been lengthy. It has been largely shaped by significant case law, notably from the German Constitutional Court, which standardized human rights based on common constitutional traditions. Equally important is the role of the European Convention and Court on Human Rights as a source for EU human rights, despite the EU Court of Justice denying the possibility of an EU membership in the convention. Finally, the third source of human rights can be found in international human rights law, especially its constituent treaties. All relevant sources were subsequently enshrined in treaty provisions, thereby enriching the construction of EU legal instruments, and ultimately fostering an EU principled approach.

Recently, this principled approach has been further concretised in EU regulatory efforts, encompassing a growing array of policies, and spanning from environmental protection to supply chains.

 

Environmental Protection and Human Rights

The EU Green Deal (EGD) has been a central policy of the 2019-2024 Commission. At its core are the commitments to achieve a carbon-neutral EU by 2050, first outlined and subsequently consolidated in the 2021 Regulation amending the broader EU climate law. While the instrument itself does not explicitly mention human rights, many associated policies include provisions that address human rights considerations. This is particularly evident in due diligence-based instruments and other regulatory frameworks such as the EU Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which includes provisions addressing human rights considerations in international partnerships. Other instruments related to the EGD also include human rights provisions. The EU Battery Regulation mandates risk assessments and necessary actions linked to due diligence in cases where human rights abuses are at risk. The EU auditing regime has also been expanded to include assessments of sustainability and human rights impacts. Notably, the 2022 Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) extends human rights and sustainability requirements, previously established in non-financial reporting, to sustainability reporting, merging these concepts under a broader umbrella of sustainability.

These amendments underscore the EU’s commitment to a principled approach to human rights and its expanding influence in the business sector. Moreover, they demonstrate the inseparable nature of human rights and sustainability. Legislative developments, including recent case law from the European Court of Human Rights, support the integration of environmental rights within the realm of human rights. However, the intersection of environmental and human rights represents just one aspect of the broader EU human rights efforts. The imminent introduction of the due diligence directive presents an additional dimension to this unfolding debate.

 

Human Rights Through Supply Chains

The development of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CS3D) was some years ago but has only recently concluded. Developing a human rights due diligence policy for supply chains was not just an independent EU initiative; it followed existing instruments in several member states. Notably, three EU member states had already developed instruments covering supply chains. The French Loi de Vigilance (Law of Vigilance – 2017) and the German LkSG (Supply Chain Act – 2021) are broad-spectrum due diligence instruments, while the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence Law (2019) is subject-specific. The CS3D aims to complement these national actions by establishing a unified EU framework for environmental and human rights due diligence applicable to large companies. The CS3D mandates the application of EU human rights standards through due diligence within the EU. It also extends these requirements to supply chains and large companies from third countries operating within the EU internal market. It also provides mechanisms for member states to enforce penalties in cases of non-compliance. The overarching goal is to hold businesses accountable for upholding human rights, prevent gross violations within and outside of the EU borders, and establish penalty regimes for violations.

The CS3D stands out as a pivotal instrument demonstrating the EU’s principled approach, not only for its intrinsic value but also for its establishment of a unified EU-wide system to enforce human rights standards in the business sector. This framework complements existing international frameworks established by the UN, OECD, and the ILO. The CS3D represents the next phase of EU human rights policy and aligns with a global trend toward holding large corporations accountable. This aspect reinforces the EU’s role as a prominent global advocate for human rights, showcasing its commitment to external enforcement beyond traditional conditionality measures. This instrument encapsulates the evolution of the EU’s principled approach, building on past efforts and paving the way for future developments in human rights protection.