What are the biggest barriers to holding corporations legally accountable for human rights abuses in courts around the world?


That’s one of the key questions posed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in a new initiative on accountability and remedy. Last year’s Human Rights Council session received a lot of attention for the mandate granted to an Inter-Governmental Working Group to develop a multilateral treaty on business and human rights, but another resolution from the same session also granted a mandate to OHCHR to improve access to remedy for business-related abuses.
ERI’s legal team has a long history of making expert submissions to UN human rights bodies regarding corporate accountability, so we were pleased to respond to OHCHR’s call to document the situation in the US legal system. The US court system, however, for all its flaws, is relatively advanced compared to most countries in terms of its track record in holding companies accountable for abuse of various kinds. The real work in this project will come in examining the barriers to accountability in other countries, especially countries where abuses frequently occur.
Of course, we still face unnecessary barriers to accountability in the US court system. All too often, judges appear to see their role as safeguarding the economic elites, rather than providing remedies to those who have been harmed. So while substantive standards of responsibility haven’t changed, we’ve seen several decisions at the Supreme Court (such as Kiobel and Daimler) make it harder to bring corporate accountability cases to the courts in the first place. Of course, the cruel irony is that this has been happening at the same time that decisions like Citizens United have granted corporations increasing rights in our political system.
Correcting that imbalance between rights and responsibilities is a key goal of ERI’s corporate accountability work, including through such efforts as the Corporate Accountability Coalition and its Congressional Report Card. Let’s hope that the OHCHR study results in strong recommendations for improving prospects for accountability and remedy, not just in the US, but around the world.