New Event! Kiobel in The Hague - Holding Shell Accountable in the Dutch courts - 16 October 2020 - 4-5 Pm (CET)

On Friday, 16 October, from 16.00-17.00, we will organise an online discussion about the Kiobel v. Shell case, currently before Dutch courts in the Hague. The discussion will retrace the trajectory followed by the case in reaching The Hague, explain the arguments raised by both parties in the proceedings, and assess the potential relevance of the future ruling for the wider debate on corporate accountability/liability for human rights violations. 


Background

In 1995, nine local activists from the Ogoniland region of Nigeria (the Ogoni nine) were executed by the Nigerian authorities, then under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. They were protesting against the widespread pollution stemming from the exploitation of local oil resources by a Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell when they were arrested and found guilty of murder in a sham trial. Their deaths led first to a series of complaints against Royal Dutch Shell in the United States on the basis of the alien tort statute (ATS). One of them, lodged by Esther Kiobel, the wife of one of those killed (Dr Barinem Kiobel), reached the US Supreme Court. Famously, the Court decided to curtail the application of the ATS in situations that do not sufficiently 'touch and concern' the territory of the United States.

This ruling put an end to Esther Kiobel's US lawsuit, but it did not stop her, together with three other widows (Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula), from seeking to hold the multinational company accountable for its alleged involvement in the deaths of their husbands. Instead, in 2017, they decided to continue their quest for justice on Royal Dutch Shell’s home turf, before Dutch courts in The Hague. 25 years after the death of the Ogoni nine, the court in The Hague just finished hearing the pleas of the parties and will render its much-awaited decision in the coming months.


Confirmed speakers

  • Tom de Boer (Human rights lawyer representing the claimants, Prakken d'Oliveira)  
  • Lucas Roorda (Utrecht University)
  • Tara van Ho (Essex University) 
  • Antoine Duval, Senior researcher at the T.M.C Asser Instituut, will moderate the discussion 


 Register here to join the discussion on Friday.

Corporate (Ir)responsibility made in Germany - Part I: The National (In)Action Plan 2016-2020 - By Mercedes Hering

Editor's note: Mercedes is a recent graduate of the LL.B. dual-degree programme English and German Law, which is taught jointly by University College London (UCL) and the University of Cologne. She will sit the German state exam in early 2022. Alongside her studies, she is working as student research assistant at the Institute for International and Foreign Private Law in Cologne. Since September 2020, she joined the Asser Institute as a research intern for the Doing Business Right project.


On the international stage, Germany presents itself as a champion for human rights and the environment. However, as this blog will show, when it comes to holding its own corporations accountable for human rights violations and environmental damage occurring within their global supply chains, it shows quite a different face.

In recent years, German companies were linked to various human rights scandals. The German public debate on corporate accountability kickstarted in earnest in September 2012, when a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, burned down killing almost 300 people. The factory had supplied KiK, Germany’s largest discount textile retailer with cheap garments. Then, over a year and a half ago, a dam broke in Brazil, killing 257 people. The dam had previously been certified to be safe by TÜV Süd Brazil, a subsidiary of TÜV Süd, a German company offering auditing and certification services. There are many more examples of incidents in which German companies were involved in human rights violations occurring within their supply chains, yet eight years after the factory in Pakistan burned down, and nine years after the unanimous endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council, there is still no binding German legislation imposing some type of liability onto companies that knowingly, or at least negligently, fail to uphold human and labor rights in their supply chain.

This is despite the fact that Germany, the third-largest importer worldwide, with its economic power and negotiation strength on the international stage, could have a dramatic impact on business practices if it were to embrace a stronger approach to business and human rights.  

In the coming two blogs I am to take a critical look at Germany’s recent policies related to corporate accountability and discuss the current developments (and roadblocks) linked to the potential adoption of a Lieferkettengesetz (Supply Chain Law). In this first post, I focus on the effects of the National Action Plan 2016-2020, building on recently released interim reports. In my second blog, I will then turn to the various proposals and political discussions for mandatory due diligence regulation (Lieferkettengesetz).More...


Tackling Worker Exploitation by ‘Gangmasters’ in the UK and Australia - Part 2: From Labour Hire Licensing to Modern Slavery Laws – By Katharine Booth

Editor’s note: Katharine Booth holds a LLM, Advanced Programme in European and International Human Rights Law from Leiden University, Netherlands and a LLB and BA from the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is currently working at the Asser Institute in The Hague. She previously worked as a lawyer and for a Supreme Court Justice in Australia.


Both the UK and Australia have enacted legislation regulating the activities of ‘gangmasters’ or labour hire providers. Part 1 of this series of blog posts examines the circumstances that led to the enactment of labour hire licensing schemes in both the UK and Australia, and some key limitations of these laws.  Part 2 explores two issues closely connected to the business and human rights context. (1) Reform (in the UK) and potential reform (in Australia) of these laws in light of the increasing national and international recognition of modern slavery, human trafficking, labour exploitation and other human rights violations in corporate supply chains. Both the UK and Australia have enacted ‘modern slavery laws’ requiring certain companies to publish annual statements addressing human rights violations in their operations and supply chains. At the same time as the introduction of the UK Modern Slavery Act, the relevant gangmasters licensing authority (the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA)) was empowered with broad ‘police-like’ powers to investigate offences under that Act. These powers have shifted the authority’s focus from the passive regulation of the gangmasters licensing scheme to the active enforcement of compliance with the Modern Slavery Act. (2) However, as currently enacted, modern slavery laws are not perfect. A key criticism of these laws is that they do not impose strong enforcement mechanisms (particularly financial penalties) on companies that fail to comply with their provisions. The imposition of penalties is central to ensuring that companies take note of the importance of eliminating slavery from their supply chains. More...


Tackling Worker Exploitation by ‘Gangmasters’ in the UK and Australia - Part 1: An Overview of Labour Hire Licensing Laws in the UK and Australia – By Katharine Booth

Editor’s note: Katharine Booth holds a LLM, Advanced Programme in European and International Human Rights Law from Leiden University, Netherlands and a LLB and BA from the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is currently working at the Asser Institute in The Hague. She previously worked as a lawyer and for a Supreme Court Justice in Australia.

 

This series of blog posts focuses on the regulation of so-called ‘gangmasters’ in the UK and Australia. A ‘gangmaster’ is an old English term for a person (an individual or business) who organises or supplies a worker to do work for another person.[1] Gangmasters have been described as ‘middlemen’ or ‘brokers’ between a worker and a business that needs temporary, and often seasonal, labour. In other countries, including Australia, gangmasters are commonly referred to as labour hire providers or labour market intermediaries.

In recent years, legislation has been implemented in the UK and three Australian States (Queensland, Victoria and South Australia) requiring gangmasters to be licensed. According to Judy Fudge and Kendra Strauss, central to these licensing schemes is the protection of vulnerable workers from forced and unfree labour and exploitation:

“[E]vidence suggests that ‘sweating’ at the bottom end of the labour market (increasingly populated by migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, in many countries) often involves labour intermediaries who exploit the ways in which processes of racialization and the construction of new categories of social difference, instigated by immigration regimes, render some workers extremely vulnerable—including to forced and unfree labour.”

As noted by Kendra Strauss, migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation as they often migrate from less developed economies, have a precarious migrant status, and are employed in poorly-paid positions. They often lack English language skills and have little knowledge of their legal entitlements and pathways for accessing remedies which, according to an Oxfam GB report, makes it unlikely that they will report abuse or exploitation, for fear of losing their jobs. Moreover, as Sayomi Ariyawansa explains, the three-tiered or tripartite arrangement between the worker, gangmaster and host business means that there is no direct contractual relationship between the worker and host business and little oversight of the legal arrangements between the worker and gangmaster. This makes it easy for unscrupulous gangmasters to slip through legal cracks, but also for businesses to unknowingly enter into arrangements with gangmasters that do not comply with the law.

This series of blog posts explores the connection between the regulation of gangmasters and the enactment of modern slavery legislation, namely legislation calling on companies to report on modern slavery and other labour and human rights abuses in their corporate supply chains. It is divided into four main parts. Part 1 of this series explores two main issues. (1) The circumstances that led to the enactment of gangmaster licensing schemes in the UK and Australia, and the laws’ provisions relating to the licensing of workers. (2) The limitations of these laws, particularly the inability of licensing schemes to hold liable companies that enter into business arrangements with gangmasters, as well as companies higher in the supply chain. Part 2 explores reform of these laws in the UK and Australia in view of the relatively recent modern slavery legislation implemented in both countries.More...

A ‘Significant’ and ‘Concrete’ Step Forward? UN Releases Database of Businesses Linked to Israeli Settlements in the OPT - By Katharine Booth

Editor’s note: Katharine Booth holds a LLM, Advanced Programme in European and International Human Rights Law from Leiden University, Netherlands and a LLB and BA from the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is currently working with the Asser Institute in The Hague. She previously worked for a Supreme Court Justice and as lawyer in Australia.

 

Overview

On 12 February 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Commissioner) issued a report on all business enterprises involved in certain activities relating to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) (Report). The Report contains a database of 112 businesses that the Commissioner has reasonable grounds to conclude have been involved in certain activities in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Of the businesses listed, 94 are domiciled in Israel and the remaining 18 in 6 other countries: France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Thailand, the UK and the US. Many of the latter are household names in digital tourism, such as Airbnb, Booking, Expedia, Opodo and TripAdvisor, as well as Motorola. More...

New Event! Between National Law(s) and the Binding Treaty: Recent Developments in Business and Human Rights Regulation - 14 November

This event co-organised with FIDH and SOMO aims to provide a detailed overview of the latest developments in the field of BHR regulation. The first part of the afternoon will be dedicated to a comparative review of some national developments in BHR regulation. The speakers have been asked to focus their presentations (max 10 minutes) on outlining the recent (and sometimes future) changes in the various regulatory models introduced by specific European states. They will also discuss the (expected) effects of the different regulatory models based on comparative analyses and empirical data gathered so far.

The second part of the afternoon will then focus on discussing the latest draft of the proposed binding treaty on BHR. The speakers have been asked to prepare short presentations (max 10 minutes) on the strengths and weaknesses of the current draft (with an eye on the changes introduced with regard to the Zero draft). The presentations will be followed by open exchanges with the participants on the various points raised (including concrete proposals for improvement).


Where: Asser Institute in The Hague

When: 14 November from 13:00


Draft programme: 

13:00 – 13:15 Welcome

13:15 – 15:00 - BHR regulation: Recent Developments in Europe – Chair Maddalena Neglia (FIDH)

  • Nadia Bernaz (Wageningen University) – Recent developments in the UK
  • Anna Beckers (Maastricht University) – Recent developments in Germany
  • Antoine Duval (Asser Institute) – Recent developments in France
  • Lucas Roorda (Utrecht University/College voor de Rechten van de Mens) – Recent developments in the Netherlands
  • Irene Pietropaoli (British Institute of International and Comparative Law) – Recent developments in BHR regulation: A comparative perspective

15:00 – 15:15 Coffee Break 

15:15 – 17:00 – Revised Draft of the Binding BHR Treaty: Strengths and weaknesses – Chair Mariëtte van Huijstee (SOMO)

  • Nadia Bernaz (Wageningen University)
  • Anna Beckers (Maastricht University)
  • Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
  • Irene Pietropaoli (British Institute of International and Comparative Law)
  • Lucas Roorda (Utrecht University/ College voor de Rechten van de Mens)

17:00 -  Closing Reception.


This event is organised with the support of:

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Doing Business Right – Monthly Report – July & August 2019 - By Maisie Biggs

Editor's note: Maisie Biggs graduated with a MSc in Global Crime, Justice and Security from the University of Edinburgh and holds a LLB from University College London. She is currently working with the Asser Institute in The Hague. She has previously worked for International Justice Mission in South Asia and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam.

 

Introduction

This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on Doing Business Right based on the coverage provided on our twitter feed @DoinBizRight and on various websites. You are invited to contribute to this compilation via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we may have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

Revised Draft of Treaty on Human Rights and TNCs has been published

The Revised Draft has been released here by the Permanent Mission of Ecuador. The Draft comes ahead of the intergovernmental negotiations to be held at the 5th session of Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights (OEIGWG). For further comment and context, see Larry Catá Backer's blog, the BHRRC's debate the treaty section on the revised draft, as well as the BHRJ Blog's series on the revised draft.

Business Roundtable redefined the group’s Purpose of a Corporation 

A prominent group of business leaders has redefined its purpose of a corporation to include stakeholder interests. In a statement signed by 181 CEO members of the Business Roundtable, an American group of business leaders, the statement of “the purpose of a corporation” has been altered from the long-standing commitment to shareholder primacy, to a broader ‘Commitment to All Stakeholders’. The change was announced in an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal and signed by 181 members, including the business leaders of Amazon, American Airlines, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Lockheed Martin, Morgan Stanley, UPS, and Walmart.

Chairman of Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, explained in the release: “The American dream is alive, but fraying. Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.”

This reconceptualisation of the purpose of corporations has been met with cautious enthusiasm; however, the statement has no bearing on the legal obligations of the signatories, and whether this materially alters business conduct by the signatories’ companies is yet to be seen.

The ‘Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation’ can be found here.

UK Supreme Court to hear Okpabi case against Shell

The Supreme Court has granted permission for Nigerian communities to appeal their case concerning environmental degradation against Royal Dutch Shell. Previously the Court of Appeals rejected jurisdiction for the claimants, however the Court’s reasoning was fundamentally undermined by the subsequent Supreme Court judgement in Vedanta. See our previous post here concerning how these cases are related, and how Vedanta has paved the way for jurisdiction to be found in the Okpabi case. See the statement by Leigh Day, working with the appellants, here.

In another case concerning the liability of a UK parent company for harms perpetrated abroad by a subsidiary that hinged on jurisdiction, the Supreme Court refused permission in AAA v Unilever PLC for Unilever subsidiary employees to appeal. Leigh Day have announced they will now move to file cases with the UN Working Group and the OECD.

Samsung France indicted for deceptive commercial practices for not abiding by CSR statements

NGOs Sherpa and ActionAid France have successfully obtained an indictment against Samsung France for deceptive commercial practices. Preliminary charges were lodged in April by a Paris investigating magistrate in the first French case in which ethical commitments have been recognised as likely to constitute commercial practice.

The organisations argue that public ethical commitments by Samsung to workers' rights were misleading, citing alleged labour abuses and child labour in factories in China, South Korea and Vietnam. The case represents a novel approach to litigating extraterritorial business human rights abuses; even in the aforementioned Vedanta case in the UK, there was a similar (brief) suggestion that CSR-style public commitments could be actionable.

Guatemalan shooting victims announce settlement with Pan American Silver in Canada

It has been announced that landmark 2017 Canadian case Garcia v. Tahoe Resources has been resolved between the parties. The case concerned remedy for 2013 shooting of protesters by Tahoe Resources mine security on April 27, 2013 outside Tahoe’s Escobal Mine in south-east Guatemala. The resolution included a public apology from Pan American Silver, who acquired Tahoe Resources earlier this year, while other terms of the settlement remain confidential. Settlements were reached with three of the claimants earlier, but the remaining four only settled on 30 July when PAS issued a public apology and acknowledgement of the violation of their human rights by Tahoe.

In 2017, the BC Court of Appeal confirmed jurisdiction over the case in Canada, finding that the “highly politicized environment” surrounding the mine meant that there was a “real risk” that the plaintiffs would not obtain justice in Guatemala, permitting the claimants to use the Canadian forum. The head of security for the mine is also facing criminal proceedings in Guatemala.

Remedy being reached has led to celebration from commentators, however no further legal precedent has been set than that from the 2017 appeal, so it might have limited value for future claimants. It has been surmised that settlement was reached because of the overwhelming evidence in the case: video footage from security cameras showed protestors being shot in the back as they fled the mine site.

See also: The GuardianBrazilian mining company to pay out £86m for disaster that killed almost 300 people and San Francisco ChronicleSuit alleging US chocolate makers collaborated in slave labor proceeds for US developments.

 More...


Doing Business Right – Monthly Report – May & June 2019 - By Shamistha Selvaratnam & Maisie Biggs

Doing Business Right – Monthly Report – May & June 2019

 

Editor’s note: Shamistha Selvaratnam is a LLM Candidate of the Advanced Masters of European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Prior to commencing the LLM, she worked as a business and human rights solicitor in Australia where she specialised in promoting business respect for human rights through engagement with policy, law and practice. Maisie Biggs graduated with a MSc in Global Crime, Justice and Security from the University of Edinburgh and holds a LLB from University College London. She is currently working with the Asser Institute in The Hague. She has previously worked for International Justice Mission in South Asia and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam.

 

Introduction

This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on Doing Business Right based on the coverage provided on our twitter feed @DoinBizRight and on various websites. You are invited to contribute to this compilation via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we may have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

Dutch Court allows Case against Shell to Proceed

On 1 May the Hague District Court rules that it has jurisdiction to hear a suit brought against the Royal Dutch Shell by four Nigerian widows. The widows are still seeking redress for the killing of their husbands in 1995 in Nigeria. They claim the defendants are accomplices in the execution of their husbands by the Abasha regime. Allegedly, Shell and related companies provided material support, which led to the arrests and deaths of the activists. Although Shell denies wrongdoing in this case, the Court has allowed the suit to proceed. The judgment is accessible in Dutch here. An English translation is yet to be provided.

The Netherlands Adopts Child Labour Due Diligence Law

On 14 May the Dutch Government passed legislation requiring certain companies to carry out due diligence related to child labour in their supply chains. The law applies to companies that are either registered in the Netherlands that sell or deliver goods or services to Dutch consumers or that are registered overseas but sell or deliver goods or services to Dutch consumers. These companies will have to submit a statement declaring that they have due diligence procedures in place to prevent child labour from being used in the production of their goods or services.

While it is not yet clear when the law will come into force, it is unlikely to do so before 1 January 2020. The Dutch law is part of the growing movement to embed human rights due diligence into national legislative frameworks. The law is accessible in Dutch here.

First case under the French Due Diligence law initiated against Total

French NGOs Amis de la Terre FR and Survie have initiated civil proceedings against French energy company Total for the planned Tilenga mining project in Uganda. These organisations and CRED, Friends of the Earth Uganda and NAVODA have sent a formal notice to Total in relation to concerns over the potential expropriation of people in proximity to the site of the Tilenga project and threats to the environment. Information on the case from the initiating civil society organisations can be found here. This is the first initiated case under the new French Due Diligence law, and may act as a test case for future litigation.

In a similar vein, civil society organisations CCFD-Terre Solidaire and Sherpa have launched Le Radar du Devoir de Vigilance [The Vigilance Duty Radar], a resource to track the compliance of French companies to the law. The site lists potentially subjected companies, and their published vigilance plans (or lack thereof).

Bolstering the UK Modern Slavery Act

During a speech at the International Labour Organisation’s centenary conference on 11 June 2019, Theresa May outlined the UK Government’s further commitments to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015; these included a central public registry of modern slavery transparency statements by businesses (in a similar vein to the Gender Pay Gap Service), and the extension of reporting requirements to the public sector. Individual ministerial departments will be obliged to publish modern slavery statements from 2021, while central Government has committed to publish voluntarily this year. The focus on public sector procurement will apparently also include a “new programme that will improve responsible recruitment in parts of our public sector supply chains that pass through Asia.”

The Final Report of the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was released in May, and considered in Westminster Hall on 19th June. More...

The Rise of Human Rights Due Diligence (Part V): Does it Foster Respect for Human Rights by Business?

Editor’s note: Shamistha Selvaratnam is a LLM Candidate of the Advanced Masters of European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Prior to commencing the LLM, she worked as a business and human rights solicitor in Australia where she specialised in promoting business respect for human rights through engagement with policy, law and practice.

 

Human rights due diligence (HRDD) has emerged as a dominant paradigm for doing business with respect for human rights. It is a central concept to the UNGPs and describes what ‘steps a company must take to become aware of, prevent and address adverse human rights impacts’ in order to discharge the responsibility to respect.[1] The case studies examining Adidas’ and Unilever’s HRDD practices (the Case Studies) have demonstrated how businesses are working with the concept of HRDD and translating it into practice. They provide an opportunity to consider the adaptable nature of HRDD and whether it has the potential to transform business internal frameworks in order to generate greater corporate respect for human rights. This will be reflected on in this final blog of our series of articles dedicated to HRDD. It will also reflect on the role that hard law initiatives play in incentivising substantive human rights compliance by business (in addition to soft law initiatives such as the UNGPs).

 

The Adaptable Nature of HRDD

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that can be taken by businesses when implementing HRDD. Although the elements and parameters of HRDD are defined in the UNGPs (discussed in detail in a previous blog in this series), it is, by its very nature, an open-ended concept that has been ‘articulated at a certain level of abstraction’. Indeed, this level of abstraction was arguably intentional given the use of the term ‘due’ in HRDD, which ‘implies variation of effort and resources necessary to address effectively adverse impacts in a particular context’.[2]

The flexibility built into the concept of HRDD acknowledges that there are more than ‘80,000 multinational corporations, ten times as many subsidiaries and countless national firms’ globally that differ in many respects.[3] Accordingly, the shape of HRDD within one business cannot be the same as that of another business – it should be ‘determined by the context in which a company is operating, its activities, and the relationships associated with those activities’.[4] As Ruggie acknowledged in 2010, his aim was to ‘provide companies with universally applicable guiding principles for … conducting due diligence’, rather than prescriptive guidance. Therefore, the ‘complexity of tools and the magnitude of processes’ employed by businesses will vary depending on the circumstances. As such, businesses can exercise a great deal of discretion as to how to translate HRDD into practice.

However, this adaptable nature of HRDD has been critiqued for lacking clarity, embodying a ‘high degree of fragility and flexibility’ and for containing an ‘inbuilt looseness’.[5] These complexities arise due to the absence of ‘sufficient specificity of expected action’.[6] Bijlmakers argues that the ‘ambiguity and openness’ of HRDD can ‘lead to uncertainty about what conduct is required from companies for the effective implementation of their responsibilities’.[7] This can result in a lack of compliance by businesses or differing levels of compliance, which ultimately means that HRDD ‘may or may not achieve the desired outcome – i.e. non-violation of human rights – in all cases’.[8] Indeed from the Case Studies it is clear that despite the extensive efforts made by Adidas and Unilever to put HRDD into practice, there are still gaps between the paper-based processes and practices of both businesses, e.g. there are human rights abuses present within their supply chains that are not being identified by their current HRDD practices and therefore not being addressed. Mares also argues that the looseness surrounding HRDD as a concept can also result in ineffective implementation, whereby businesses take action that is ‘largely symbolic, generates limited improvements, and fails to address underlying issues’.[9] As a result, businesses are not addressing the root causes of human rights issues within their business, but rather ‘applying bandaids to symptoms’. [10]

The flexibility of HRDD as a concept also allows businesses to employ various tools and processes in order to ‘create plausible deniability’, instead of discovering and understanding issues within their supply chains and how they should be managed.[11] Through conducting on the ground research at the local level, Bartley demonstrates that businesses appear to be using these tools and processes in order to ‘collect just enough information to produce assurances of due diligence’, allowing human rights issues and impacts to be kept out of sight.[12] Accordingly, their is a risk that businesses take advantage of the open-ended nature of HRDD by implementing HRDD processes as window-dressing to give the impression that they are engaging with the human rights risks and impacts in the context of their business, when in fact they are not.

However, despite these critiques the Case Studies demonstrate that the adaptable nature of HRDD has proven to be transformative on businesses. Embracing HRDD has led Adidas and Unilever to transform their operations to fit the different phases of the HRDD process. In doing so, they have avoided using a cookie-cutter approach that does not account for the differences between the businesses and they way they operate.

The use of customised HRDD approaches is of particular importance given that the salient human rights risks and impacts identified by a business will always differ in some respects to those of another business. With respect to Adidas and Unilever, despite having some overlapping identified risks (e.g. discrimination, working hours, freedom of association and fair wages), both businesses also focus on a number of specific salient risks, which are determined using various factors including the assessed risks of the countries in which they operate. On one hand, land rights are a particular focus for Unilever given the negative impacts it can have on individual’s and communities’ land tenure rights, particularly through its suppliers. On the other hand, child labour is more of a salient risk for Adidas given the pressure on brands in the apparel sector to produce garments at low costs in a quick time frame. In light of this, the HRDD processes followed by each business after identifying these risk areas are different such that the actions taken to integrate and address risks and impacts are directly responsive to those risks.

 

Is HRDD Effective to Foster Corporate Respect of Human Rights? 

The Case Studies also demonstrate that HRDD is not solely a paper tiger. Businesses that truly engage with the HRDD process can indeed transform internal processes, enhancing corporate attention on human rights. Both Adidas and Unilever have not sought to use HRDD as a buzzword with no institutional consequences. Instead they have introduced concrete mechanisms aimed at preventing human rights impacts from arising within their business context. 

So how has HRDD had a transformative impact on Adidas and Unilever? As I have shown in the Case Studies, it has provided a framework for embedding institutional and regulatory changes geared towards the prevention of adverse human rights impacts. On paper, they have translated the cycle of HRDD into a maze of internal procedures involving different stages of their activities as well as different corporate entities integrated in their supply chains. Moreover, they have built-up enforcement mechanisms in an attempt to trigger change if a potential human rights risk is identified. In short, the transformative impact of HRDD on the structure and operations of the two corporations is clear, whether this impact is effective to tackle human rights violations in their supply chains is another matter. The Case Studies conducted cannot evidence effectiveness, as it would require much more time-consuming and expensive on-field studies to observe whether the compliance of, for example, the working conditions of Adidas’ or Unilever’s suppliers with core labour rights improves thanks to these changes.    

It is certain that neither Adidas nor Unilever have a perfect HRDD process in place – gaps and blindspots will always exist which allow serious human rights issues to continue to emerge in their supply chains. Nonetheless, as evidenced above, it is also true that embracing HRDD had a transformative impact in the way these businesses operate. Whether these transformations are correlated with a decrease in human rights violations across their supply chains is a fundamental question that cannot be answered by my research, even though it will be at the centre of future assessments of the practical effects of HRDD on human rights throughout supply chains.    

 

The Catalyst Role of Hard Law Initiatives

Soft law HRDD initiatives such as the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines have been primarily relied upon to date in order to regulate corporate human rights behaviour. Over the past years, however, several countries have either adopted or started to consider adopting legislation that embeds HRDD into their legal framework. For example:

  • The UK and Australia have both adopted legislation requiring specific businesses to report on their HRDD processes and efforts in their operations and supply chains in relation to modern slavery.
  • The Netherlands has adopted legislation that requires specific companies to undertake HRDD related to child labour in their supply chains.
  • France has taken a broader approach, rather than focusing on thematic issues, and adopted legislation that requires certain businesses to undertake HRDD to identify and prevent serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, health and safety as well as the environment.
  • Further, the Human Rights Council’s Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Respect to Human Rights is in the process of developing a binding business and human rights treaty. The current draft of the treaty includes a HRDD article requiring state parties to ensure that their domestic legislation requires all businesses to which the treaty applies to undertake HRDD throughout their business activities.[13]

The rapid rise of such hard law initiatives imposing HRDD across the board means that transformation observed in the context of Unilever and Adidas will spread to many more businesses in the coming years. The turn to binding HRDD might be a response to the lack of willingness of businesses to embrace HRDD voluntarily. This is particularly the case in light of the dire landscape highlighted by benchmarking initiatives. For example, the results of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark demonstrates that 40% of the companies ranked scored no points at all in relation to the systems they have in place to ensure that due diligence processes are implemented.

Hard law that complements the business and human rights soft law already in existence might create the ‘compliance pull’ that is needed to ensure that businesses undertake HRDD by legally mandating that they engage in the process. Further, it can clarify and create greater certainty as to the expectations on business with respect to HRDD, as well as incentivise meaningful HRDD by imposing the risk of civil liability onto businesses failing to conduct proper HRDD. The turn to binding HRDD will necessarily have transformative effects on the way affected businesses operate. It will trigger the emergence of a whole HRDD bureaucracy involving rules, processes and institutions. Yet, whether it will lead to greater respect for human rights remains to be seen in practice and depends on the way HRDD will be implemented as well as on the intensity of control exercised by national authorities.

 

Conclusion

This blog series has delved into the operationalisation of HRDD from theory to practice by business. Through the detailed examination of the HRDD practices of Adidas and Unilever in their supply chains, it has demonstrated that HRDD can profoundly change the internal operations of businesses embracing it.

Despite the fragility and flexibility of the concept that gives rise to uncertainty and ambiguity as to how it should be complied with, businesses that choose to fully engage with the process are transformed by it with a potential effect on their human rights footprint. Truly implementing HRDD throughout a business’ operations and supply chains has the potential to result in human rights risks and impacts being better embedded within the business’ corporate governance framework. This is because HRDD focuses on identifying and managing these risks and impacts and to use those findings to inform business decisions, such as whether to engage in business activities in a particular country or whether to enter into contractual relations with a particular supplier. The development and adoption of hard law imposing HRDD complementing existing soft law initiatives contributes to the diffusion of HRDD into a greater number of businesses.

This blog series paves the way for further research into whether the HRDD mechanisms implemented by Adidas, Unilever and other businesses are truly effective to protect human rights. On the ground research at a local level involving engagement with the relevant business being assessed and its stakeholders is crucial to determining the effectiveness of specific HRDD mechanisms in practice. A broader examination of a greater number of businesses’ HRDD practices will allow for conclusions to be drawn as to how businesses can effectively conduct HRDD and whether there are particular practices and mechanisms that are more effective.


[1] Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, John Ruggie: Protect, Respect and Remedy: a Framework for Business and Human Rights (7 April 2008), UN Doc. A/HRC/8/5, [56] [2008 Report].

[2] Radu Mares, “Respect” Human Rights: Concept and Convergence, in R Bird, D Cahoy and J Darin (eds) Law, Business and Human Rights: Bridging the Gap, Edward Elgar Publishing (2014), p 8.

[3] John Ruggie, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights (2010).

[4] 2008 Report, supra note 1, [25].

[5] Justine Nolan, The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights: Soft Law of Not Law?, in S Deva and D Bilchitz (eds), Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect? (2013), p 140 [Nolan]; Radu Mares, Human Rights Due Diligence and the Root Causes of Harm in Business Operations: A Textual and Contextual Analysis of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 10(1) Northeastern University Law Review 1 (2018), p 45 [Mares].

[6] Mares, ibid, p 6.

[7] Stephanie Bijlmakers, Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Rights, and the Law, London: Routledge (2018), p 120.

[8] Ibid; Surya Deva, Treating Human Rights Lightly: A Critique of the Consensus Rhetoric and the Language Employed by the Guiding Principles, in S Deva and D Bilchitz (eds) Human Rights Obligations of Business: Beyond the Corporate Responsibility to Respect?, Cambridge University Press (2013), p 101.

[9] Mares, supra note 5, p 45.

[10] Ibid, p 1.

[11] Tim Bartley, Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy, Oxford University Press (2018), p 178.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The HRDD article of the treaty is discussed in further detail in a previous blog.

The Rise of Human Rights Due Diligence (Part IV): A Deep Dive into Unilever’s Practices - By Shamistha Selvaratnam

Editor’s note: Shamistha Selvaratnam is a LLM Candidate of the Advanced Masters of European and International Human Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Prior to commencing the LLM, she worked as a business and human rights solicitor in Australia where she specialised in promoting business respect for human rights through engagement with policy, law and practice.

 

The consumer goods industry is shaped by businesses’ desire to engage with the best-quality suppliers at the cheapest price in order to sell goods at a high-profit margin in the burgeoning consumer markets. Accordingly, they continue to build their value chains in order to provide goods to consumers. The resulting effect of this is that potential human rights risks and impacts are likely to arise in the supply chains of businesses that operate in the industry. Risks that often arise in this sector include forced labour, non-compliance with minimum wage laws and excessive work hours, land grabbing and discrimination. Accordingly, businesses such as Unilever face the challenge of preventing, mitigating and addressing adverse human rights impacts in their supply chains through conducting human rights due diligence (HRDD). As Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever) has stated: ‘We cannot choose between [economic] growth and sustainability—we must have both.’

This fourth blog of a series of articles dedicated to HRDD is a case study looking at how HRDD has materialised in practice within Unilever’s operations and supply chains. It will be followed by another case study examining another that has also taken steps to operationalise the concept of HRDD. To wrap up the series, a final piece will reflect on the effectiveness of the turn to HRDD to strengthen respect of human rights by businesses.More...