[Interview] Virginie Rouas: ‘European companies are polluting the Global South without facing full legal consequences'

Published 8 December 2022
By Naomi Lamaury

@Shutterstock - European companies are polluting the Global South without facing full legal consequences

Asser Institute researcher Virginie Rouas focuses on the interplay between business and human rights on the one hand, and access to justice, artificial intelligence, and the human rights and environmental impacts of the green transition on the other. She is currently researching the potential of big data technology in the context of human rights and environmental due diligence.European companies are polluting the Global South without facing full legal consequences.’ An interview.

What motivated you to get into this field of research?
“In 2008, a group of Nigerian farmers filed a complaint in the Netherlands against Shell for oil pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. It was an unprecedented case in which a multinational enterprise based in the Global North was held accountable for violating its duty of care towards local communities in the Global South. From the moment I heard of this case, I knew I wanted to explore how to use legal proceedings to hold powerful corporate actors accountable, the international companies that are behind so much of the environmental pollution around the world." 

What is the focus of the main research project you are working on? 
“I am currently working on a research project for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH with my colleagues Antoine Duval and Max Ebdon to investigate the potential of big data technologies in the context of the human rights and environmental due diligence process. These days, human rights due diligence has become a major feature of the field of business and human rights. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights (UNGPs), which are a set of guidelines that clarify the role of states and business actors and the actions expected of them in relation to human rights. The UNGPs make it clear that business enterprises should respect human rights by avoiding infringing them and by addressing any adverse human rights impacts in which they are involved. As part of their corporate responsibility to respect human rights, business enterprises should have in place a human rights due diligence process. This means that a company should first identify the potential and actual human rights risks in its activities. It should then prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts by taking appropriate action. Finally, the company should track the effectiveness of its response and account for how it addresses adverse human rights impacts.  

In practice, business actors operating across borders or within complex supply chains need to collect and process a large amount of information to understand the potential human rights risks in their activities. Big data technologies are capable of mining, processing, and analysing large complex sets of data which could help companies conduct their human rights due diligence process in a more efficient manner. For example, artificial intelligence technologies can collect and analyse massive amounts of data from various sources in order to highlight potential trends and risks for each company in the value chain. So, in our project, we are looking at the potential (use) of big data technologies to assess, prevent, mitigate, and remedy environmental and human rights risks in global supply chains.”

How has the business and human rights field evolved in the past decade?
“The UNGPs have acted as a catalyst for action. The concept of human rights due diligence established by the UNGPs was not only reused in policy documents (such as the OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises), but it was also used by a number of NGOs and activists to push for the adoption of legally binding standards on human rights due diligence. This was a major breakthrough because we have finally arrived at the point where we are adopting binding standards for businesses.

Many countries in Europe have already adopted or are considering adopting human rights due diligence standards at the national level. France was the first to introduce binding obligations on businesses in 2017, followed a few years later by the Netherlands with specific legislation on child labour, and Germany as well.  

A crucial development was the announcement by European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders in 2020, in the midst of the COVID crisis, that the EU will adopt a directive imposing human rights and environmental due diligence obligations on businesses. This is critical because when the EU adopts this directive, it will be the first time that a regional organisation has adopted general binding standards for human rights and environmental due diligence. Moreover, this directive is likely to have a strong extraterritorial impact on business supply chains and operations outside the EU.”

How does the work in academia and legal research impact the practice in this field?
"I think there is sometimes a disconnect between the issues that academics are concerned with or working on and the legal issues that arise in practice or that legal practitioners, NGOs, or governments face. Moreover, academic research frequently overlooks effective solutions that can be implemented in practice. I believe that if academic legal research is to have an impact on practice, it is important to get out of the research silo and engage with practitioners and NGOs. Collaboration with actors outside of academia can help produce academic research with societal value. 

As a legal consultant, I worked on legal research projects for clients like the European Commission. They were confronted with concrete and/or emerging issues and needed research in order to understand the issues at hand and determine viable solutions. I ended up working on a lot of different issues that I would not have necessarily worked on if I had been an academic, for the simple reason that it is sometimes difficult to understand the problems that emerge in practice unless you are in the field. Our current project on big data and human rights due diligence is, in my opinion, a very good example of a research project that seeks to address a concrete and novel problem identified by the German Development Agency (GIZ) from an academic perspective. One of the aims of this project is to develop concrete recommendations that can be implemented by businesses and enforcement agencies.”  

If you were to offer advice to young academics, or legal scholars wishing to enter into the field you're in now, what would you advise?
“For a young academic or legal scholar, especially in the field of business and human rights, I think it's very important to build a good network not only of academics, but also of legal practitioners, NGOs, and businesses. It is also important to attend and participate in conferences where you can present your work and have your arguments tested and constructively criticised.

It is also beneficial to be curious about what is happening in fields other than one’s own and to understand the debates and problems that arise in those fields, as these can inform one’s understanding of their own field. The field of business and human rights is complex, because it takes place at the intersection of different sectors of law. The business and human rights field requires a good understanding of the issues, norms, and discussions in various fields, which can be very overwhelming. I came from an international environmental law background and I had to learn a lot about international human rights law, company law, and liability law. By looking at what has been done in other fields, I learned a lot and was able to develop a more critical analysis of my own research questions. My final advice would be to be confident, curious, and outgoing.”

About Virginie Rouas
Dr Virginie Rouas previously worked on environmental law and policy projects for the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While studying for her PhD, she worked for Global Witness, an NGO that works on the intersection of natural resources, conflict, and corruption, and Frank Bold, an organisation that combines an NGO and a law firm that primarily works on social and environmental issues in Central and Eastern Europe. Before joining the Asser Institute, she was a legal advisor at a consultancy firm in Brussels where she managed legal projects and conducted legal research that fed into the design of public policies for institutional and non-profit clients, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and ClientEarth.

At the Asser Institute, Rouas is part of the research strand Transnational public interests: constituting public interest beyond and below the state, which examines how public interests shape, and are shaped, below and beyond the state. Researchers investigate what role non-state actors, such as corporations, NGOs, cities and the European Union, play in the constitution and operation of public interests in a transnational context. 

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Dr Virginie Rouas