National Human Rights Institutions as Gateways to Remedy under the UNGPs: Introduction - By Alexandru Tofan

Editor's Note: Alexandru Rares Tofan recently graduated with an LLM in Transnational Law from King’s College London where he focused on international human rights law, transnational litigation and international law. He is currently an intern with the Doing Business Right project at the Asser Institute in The Hague. He previously worked as a research assistant at the Transnational Law Institute in London on several projects pertaining to human rights, labour law and transnational corporate conduct.

Human rights require meaningful enforcement mechanisms. This idea stands at the foundation of the United Nations’ approach to handling corporate human rights abuses.[1] An individual that has suffered a human rights harm must freely enjoy access to justice in order to seek the reparation of that harm. The third pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) focuses exclusively on this need to secure access to effective remedy for victims. The remedial process described therein comprises both the procedural aspects of obtaining a remedy for an adverse human rights impact and the substantive outcome of those procedures. This process demands the involvement of all actors including governments, corporations and civil society.

The commentary to Principle 27 of the UNGPs notes the particularly important role that national human rights institutions (NHRI) play in providing access to effective remedy. In his 2008 Report, the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights referred to them as the ‘lynchpins’ of his framework’s entire system of grievance mechanisms. The reasons justifying this optimistic outlook are not difficult to uncover. NHRIs are state-based but independent institutions that have a constitutional or legislative mandate to protect and promote human rights.[2] They are focal points of expertise on human rights and they enjoy a presumption of neutrality and objectivity. Their unique positioning at the crossroads between governments, corporations and civil society further enables them to behave as crucial links between these actors. In terms of providing access to remedy, the 2010 Edinburgh Declaration envisions the participation of NHRIs as either direct or indirect. Direct participation refers to the handling of complaints relating to business and human rights cases. An NHRI may for instance assume the role of an investigator, mediator or conciliator. Indirect participation on the other hand refers to promoting education, monitoring, capacity-building, advising and issuing recommendations inter alia. In this sense, the NHRI becomes a centre for expertise on human rights and a hub for the exchange of information. The question nevertheless remains if and to what degree NHRIs have in practice assumed this role in the context of business and human rights.

This five-part series looks at the extent to which the the Access to Remedy Pillar of the UNGPs has been fulfilled through the daily practice of the Dutch, South African, Romanian, Australian and Indian NHRIs. Ultimately, this series hopes to unravel whether the chosen NHRIs have assumed the role envisioned for them under the Principles and the differing ways in which they may have done so.

[1] Jonathan Drimmer and Lisa J Laplante, ‘The Third Pillar: Remedies, Reparations, and the Ruggie Principles’ in Jena Martin and Karen E Bravo (eds), The Business and Human Rights Landscape: Moving Forward, Looking Back (CUP 2016) 318 and op. cit. 12.

[2] UNDP and UN OHCHR, UNDP-OHCHR Toolkit for Collaboration with National Human Rights Institutions (2010) 2.

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