National Human Rights Institutions as Gateways to Remedy under the UNGPs: The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (Part.1) - 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.

The national human rights institution of the Netherlands is the College voor de Rechten van de Mens (i.e. ‘the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights’). It was established on 1 October 2012 with the entering into force of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights Act of 24 November 2011 as supplemented by the Explanatory Memorandum (EP). It is an independent public body whose mission is to promote, monitor and protect human rights in practice, policy and legislation (see NIHR Act s.1 (3)). For these purposes, it enjoys a wide competence that spans the full breadth of human rights whether stemming from national or international legislation (see EP at page 7). The Institute’s duties include conducting investigations, reporting and making recommendations, advising, providing information, encouraging research, pressing for the observance of internationally recognised human rights, and assessing any complaints alleging violations that it may have received (see NIHR Act s.3). The types of complaints it may entertain are nevertheless rather limited – the Institute may only investigate claims alleging discrimination or unequal treatment (see NIHR Act s.10 (1)).

This article analyses two types of actions in order to assess the extent to which the Institute has assumed its role in promoting access to remedy in business and human rights cases. According to the 2010 Edinburgh Declaration of the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC), the participation of NHRIs in the remedial process may be either direct or indirect. As will be shown, the Dutch NHRI is envisioned as an institution that leans more on indirect rather than direct participation in providing access to remedy.

In terms of direct participation, the complaints procedure of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has a rather narrow scope. Section 10 of the Act stipulates that the Institute may conduct investigations into allegations of violations in so far as they relate to discrimination or unequal treatment under the Equal Treatment Act, the Equal Treatment (Men and Women) Act or Article 646, Book 7 of the Dutch Civil Code. Although the complaint may be submitted against any type of Dutch-based company (see S. 10 (2) (a)–(e)), the limited subject matter jurisdiction prevents the Institute from being a one-stop shop for business-related human rights abuses. This is especially true for transnational corporate misconduct, which normally entails cross-cutting/intersectional human rights abuses. In the same vein, the Institute may only bring a legal action before the courts if this claim relates to discrimination under the aforementioned legislation (see S.13). The Memorandum attached to the Act explains that ‘[…] [g]iven the legal protection already available in the Netherlands and the possibility of lodging a complaint with an ombudsman the government sees no good reason to give the Institute its own jurisdiction to hear legal actions in the broad field of human rights […]’ and that ‘[…] [i]n response to a complaint, the National Ombudsman may investigate whether or not the state has acted properly […] To prevent overlapping it is therefore undesirable for this responsibility to be given to the Institute […]’. The National Ombudsman may nevertheless only exercise authority over public bodies (see Article 1a). In turn, this means that complaints lodged against private actors arguing violations of human rights other than discrimination escape both the Institute and the National Ombudsman. While it is true that the general legal protection available in the Netherlands would apply in those cases, the role of the NHRI as a complementary grievance mechanism is in this way restricted. Under the UNGPs, NHRIs are supposed to offer an alternative to instituting legal proceedings. The rationale behind this is that bringing a legal action may involve many obstacles for the victim such as prohibitive costs, imbalance of expertise between parties, lack of standing for foreign nationals, and protracted duration. Conversely, an NHRI complaints mechanism is perceived as more accessible, expeditious and culturally-appropriate.[1] The limited subject matter jurisdiction of the Institute in handling complaints may therefore be seen as impeding its full direct participation in providing access to remedy.

As to indirect participation, one of the main tasks of the Institute is to promote and monitor human rights (see S.3). The Institute has a rather robust presence in the area of business and human rights in the Netherlands and performs an important role in promoting human rights in this policy area. For instance, the Institute drew up a comprehensive response to the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights put forward by the Dutch government in December 2013. This response entailed an in-depth examination of the plan’s compatibility with the UNGPs as well as advice and recommendations for its improvement. Notably, it included a rights-based approach in that it looked at the issue of access to remedy from the victims’ perspectives. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights further advised the government on the proposed law on child labour in supply chains, the human rights implications of the new model bilateral investment treaty, and it partook in the discussions regarding the national sector covenants (e.g. the Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile). It further participates in the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights alongside other stakeholders. Furthermore, the cross-cutting nature of business-related human rights abuses means that they permeate the Institute’s work in other policy areas. For instance, the Institute’s work on the right to housing implies the usage of the UNGPs as a framework to ascertain the human rights responsibilities of housing corporations. In the same vein, one of the four themes from the Institute’s Strategy Plan for 2016-2019 is discrimination and stereotyping in the labour market. This necessarily involves an assessment of the human rights obligations of corporations. The Institute has therefore assumed a firm standing in terms of indirect participation in the implementation of the UNGPs. It promotes education, monitors human rights implementation, undertakes capacity-building exercises, advises and issues recommendations. Nevertheless, one cannot help but notice the absence of business and human rights from the Institute’s Strategic Plan for 2016-2019.

To conclude, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights seems to have only partially assumed the role envisioned for it under the UNGPs as a national human rights institution. On the one hand, it did establish itself as a focal point for expertise on human rights issues in the Netherlands and has taken important steps to promote and advise on issues of business and human rights. On the other hand, a broader mandate would conform more to the second leg of the Paris Principles and to the spirit and aim of the Third Pillar of the UNGPs – the protection of human rights by receiving, investigating and resolving complaints.

[1]           UN Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises – Protect, Respect and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights’ (7 April 2008) A/HRC/8/5 at page 25.

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