Slovenia prides itself on being among those countries committed to respecting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. It has, for instance, in 2018 presided the United Nations Human Rights Council. Slovenia’s creation dates back to June 1991. Its predecessor (i.e. former socialist Yugoslavia) did not operate as “as a state governed by law and… within it human rights… were grossly violated” (Preamble of the Basic Constitutional Charter on the Sovereignty and Independence of the Republic of Slovenia, para. 2). On the other hand, the areas of business and human rights has not been in the centre of public, government or business attention since democratisation in 1990 and independence in 1991. Most of business activities in the wider areas of business and human rights have been so far concentrated on corporate social responsibility initiatives such as charity, donations and different certification initiatives. This appears to have changed recently. The government of Republic of Slovenia has after many years of inputs from different stakeholders in November 2019 adopted its National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights as one of the first in Central and Eastern Europe (after Lithuania, Czech Republic and Poland).

Backdrop

Slovenia has one of the lowest levels of income inequality globally. However, wealth inequalities have been increasing in recent decades. Recent OECD data illustrate that the richest 10% of individuals in Slovenia own 49% of its wealth. Slovenia’s economy is mostly export-oriented and dependent on markets of Germany, Italy, Austria and those of Central and Eastern Europe. The gross domestic product of Slovenia was estimated in 2017 to amount almost 49 billion US dollars, which converts to 25662.41 GDP per capita. Its Investment climate is known for “high regulatory barriers”. Ljubljana stock exchange publically lists in its main »SBITOP« index only nine corporations.

The most common challenges in the area of business and human rights in Slovenia inter alia include: discriminatory practices on the basis of various personal characteristics; respect of human rights in business supply chains; protecting rights of migrant workers; ensuring decent pay for workers; workplace mobbing, health and safety at work, precarious work, transnational trafficking of human beings, environmental risks of business activities, and the rule of law, transparency and anti-corruption challenges. Additionally, several extraterritorial human rights challenges arise when corporations registered in Slovenia operate abroad, particularly elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, where the rule of law and state institutions are weak and deficient.

Structure and Content of the National Action Plan of the Republic of Slovenia

The National Action Plan is divided in seven chapters and two annexes. It partially follows the structure of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, particularly as concerns state obligations to protect human rights against the adverse corporate conduct. Its section I clearly provides that it “defines the expectations of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia about respect for human rights by economic operators« and adds that unequivocally provides that business »established under Slovenian law or operating in Slovenia are obliged to respect and to protect human rights” (p.3). The National Action Plan thereafter lists in Section III the following areas as priorities of Slovenia in the area of business and human rights: “Prevention of discrimination and inequality, and promotion of equal opportunities”; “Promotion and protection of fundamental workers’ rights, also in transnational businesses and along the entire production chain”; “Prevention of, and fight against, trafficking in human beings”; “Environmental protection, nature conservation, sustainable development”; and “Human rights due diligence” (p. 6). The main parts of the National Action Plan can be found in section 4 on the state’s expectations of business enterprises and section 5 on the state’s duty to protect human rights and part 6 as to the access to assistance. The National Action Plan clearly states in Section 4 that businesses “must comply with the Constitution and the relevant laws that require them to respect and protect human rights, and impose appropriate sanctions for non-compliance” (pp. 6-7, footnote omitted). Part 5 thereafter outlines state commitments and promises as to the exercise of the State’s duty to protect human rights. Like many national action plans, National Action Plan of Slovenia does not include any commitments as to the second pillar of the UN Guiding Principles – corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Additionally, Annex I includes Guidelines on Corporate Human Rights Due Diligence, where Annex II includes references. Such developments go hand in hand with recent steps to operationalize the Slovenian National Contact Point under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which is formally structured under the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology. National Contact Points should be able to deal with “specific instances” complaints within a year, thereby giving individuals right to redress in the case of alleged violations of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The domestic human rights protection system in Slovenia is formally quite strong and at least theoretically protects individuals not only against state conduct but also negative impacts of business activities. However, the judicial branch of government has not enjoyed a high level of trust among population as to its independence, impartiality and fairness of judicial proceedings, thereby triggering many individuals to seek for justice before regional courts such the European Court of Human Rights. For instance, the European Court of Human Rights has so far delivered 336 judgements against Slovenia finding one or more violations of the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. On-going challenges for Slovenia have been how to translate the modern normative human rights standards into daily practice and provide concrete measures to protect individuals against negative state and corporate conduct.
All in all, National Action Plan of the Republic of Slovenia restates obligations of state and businesses to respect and protect human rights that already exist in its constitutional and legal systems. Its non-binding legal nature does not permit it to create new obligations. Nonetheless, it provides commitments and goals that Slovenia aims to achieve in the forthcoming years in business and human rights. Those commitments and goals will be at least indirectly examined later this year as Slovenia submits itself to the 3rd cycle of the universal period review in the UN Human Rights Council.

Implementation of the National Action Plan

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, following the adoption the National Action Plan, established an inter-ministerial working group, which also includes stakeholders from outside the government such representative of the Chamber of Commerce, civil society and academia. The Working Group on the Implementation of National Action Plan is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has so for met twice, first on 17 January 2019 and, secondly 4 April 2019. Its members have agreed to focus in the first two-year period on improving human rights performance of state-owned corporations and ensuring respect of human rights in the public procurement as one of the priorities to advance business and human rights in Slovenia. To this end, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce will at the end of May 2019 organise a half-day event on business and human rights in Slovenia aimed at businesses and other stakeholders. Additionally, the Working Group has been considering drafting a statement, which businesses could subscribe to and establishing certification mechanism where businesses could acquire certificate as business friendly enterprises.

Way forward

Slovenia has, after decades of hiatus, committed itself to improving business and human rights performance of corporations registered in Slovenia. By adopting a National Action Plan and strengthening National Contact Point under OECD Guidelines it has finally made first concrete steps towards its implementation in the national system. Those recent developments are promising. They will, however, have to be translated into practice and be fully embraced by businesses, including or especially those which are fully or partially controlled by state, and make sure that human rights are operated throughout their business operations.

Jernej Letnar Černič is Associate Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at the Faculty of Government and European Studies of the New University (Ljubljana/Kranj, Slovenia). His studies have been cited in the reports of the United Nations, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, in decisions of the Slovenian Constitutional Court and in academic studies from all parts of the world. He has been active in various roles in Slovenian and global civil society.

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