International human rights law declares that all people have a right to a remedy for human rights violations, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) make clear that the right to a remedy extends to corporate human rights abuses. But what happens when those in control of how you get that remedy are the same companies violating the rights that make a remedy necessary? Who should have the final say in what kinds of harms require a remedy, and what type of remedy is acceptable?
Here’s an interesting idea: affected communities should sit in the driver’s seat and create their own remedial mechanisms, and corporate actors should implement mechanisms that reflect international standards and community conceptions of justice and fair process.
Under the UNGPs, companies have the responsibility to provide remedies to victims of human rights abuses through non-judicial grievance mechanisms at the project level. These Operational Grievance Mechanisms (OGMs) are systems to handle complaints, resolve disputes, and offer remedies for harms caused to individuals, communities, and workers who have been, or may be affected by, a company’s operations. An OGM might, for example, provide compensation to injured victims, broker a community benefit-sharing agreement, or produce an official investigation report that uncovers the truth of human rights abuse allegations. OGMs are meant to provide easier access and more user-friendly processes than the formal court system, and may serve as an early intervention system to prevent disputes from escalating into full-blown human rights cases. With the growth of multinational companies whose projects have the potential to harm both the environment and people living all over the world, companies have started designing and implementing their own mechanisms.
However, research into existing mechanisms and reports on best practices reveal that more often than not, companies don’t have the capacity, or the interest, to create meaningful OGMs. The mechanisms that companies design tend to have very little, if any, community input, they generally provide inadequate information to the intended users, and they fall short on implementation and oversight. These deficiencies can result in situations where the company fails to comply with agreed-on procedures or outcomes but faces no legal or financial consequences. In some cases, the result is that the victim ends up in a worse position than before using the mechanism. For example, Barrick Gold has been criticized for setting up an OGM for rape victims at its Porgera Mine in Papua New Guinea that offers only modest “benefits,” such as start-up grants to sell second-hand clothing in the marketplace. In exchange, the claimants are required to sign away their right to seek legal remedies in the future. In this way, the company locks in compensation at a rate and on terms that are far inferior to what local people view as a legitimate remedy and avoids potential legal liability. This is particularly dangerous because the benefits do not always arrive as promised, leaving victims with no remedy through the OGM, and no alternatives due to the waiver.
Inspired by community-driven models such as the Coalition for Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program and cutting-edge work on community-designed benefit sharing agreements, we’re exploring the possibility of community-based solutions to resolve the shortcomings we have observed in OGMs that are designed and implemented by corporate actors. OGMs should be designed and implemented by the affected communities themselves, based on local conceptions of legitimate remedy and informed by international human rights standards and the advice of experienced legal practitioners.
We intend to work directly with communities facing abuses by multinational companies to pilot these mechanisms, which will be rooted in their specific needs, the harms that they have experienced or foresee, and culturally appropriate remedies. We believe that both companies and communities will benefit if increased stakeholder buy-in leads to remedial processes that are accessible and legitimate.
Effective and culturally-appropriate remedial mechanism are not gifts to be bestowed on a community. Rather, the affected stakeholders are rights-holders who are in the best position to identify and define appropriate remedies for the harms caused by projects in their community. Therefore, we believe a grievance mechanism designed and implemented by its beneficiaries will provide the more effective option to afford effective, legitimate remedies for corporate abuse.