Communities in Charge of their own Justice

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EarthRights International (ERI) recently held an interactive workshop in collaboration with The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), which was hosted by the Columbia University Human Rights Institute and Clinic. The purpose of the event was to discuss ERI’s new model for a community-driven operational level grievance mechanism with expert practitioners, academics, civil society, and businesses to gain input on issues that have come up in the first stage of development. The broad spectrum of expertise at the table from these various areas helped bring out substantive discussions, and many useful perspectives.

Operational-level grievance mechanisms (OGMs) are systems that companies set up to handle complaints from workers, community members, and other stakeholders. Existing OGMs are typically designed and implemented by the company – the party that is the target of the complaint – a model that we believe has inherent conflicts of interest and sidelines the affected communities. ERI’s model emphasizes that communities are the parties most affected by the company’s projects, and are best positioned to determine what harms exist or can be foreseen, and what remedies are appropriate to vindicate their rights. A mechanism designed and implemented by communities would be more legitimate, and would provide a more effective and rights-based remedy.

At the workshop, we held a number of discussion sessions, focusing on a range of issues. We covered strategic and theoretical issues such as leverage strategies that could be used by affected communities, when and how companies should become involved with the grievance process, how to utilize the role of NGOs effectively without overstepping the role of the community, and how to work using the communities’ traditional concepts of justice while still protecting internationally-recognized human rights norms. And we delved into practical and logistical issues such as funding, the scope of a mechanism, the role of the government, and how to ensure that there is a binding commitment to comply with the results of the mechanism.

One of the highlights was a lunchtime presentation from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Food Program, who presented on their successful worker-driven model, which incorporates an effective grievance mechanism. The success of the CIW model has provided not only concrete examples and useful strategies, but also optimism that grievance mechanisms that are designed and driven by communities are possible.

It’s not surprising that few definitive answers came out of the workshop. Nor was it expected. Each community will identify and create its own mechanism with its own specific characteristics. That can’t be done in a room full of outside experts in New York. But at the same time, a community cannot negotiate with a company on a level playing field without information and strategy. The purpose of these workshops is to gather the most useful information from experts in all areas related to grievance mechanisms, negotiation, and organizing, so that when we work with a community to design a specific mechanism, we can bring enough information and strategy to help them to start the process from an informed place. The examples provided, advice and input given, and further questions raised at this workshop were immensely helpful.  They will aid in putting together the framework and toolkit that will enable us to play our part in the most effective way: to be a resource for communities that are seeking to take the remedy for human rights abuses by corporations into their own hands.

There are still a number of steps to come, and more meetings with both experts and community leaders. We are continuing to develop foundational principles and a toolkit for communities, and we hope to pilot the project soon. The ultimate goal is that this model will provide a framework so that every community impacted by a company’s project can design and implement a grievance mechanism that suits its specific needs.

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