Advancing the discourse on corporate accountability: a global exploration of remedies

Published: 9 January 2024 at 09:08

Between November 27 and 29, I had the privilege of participating in the 12th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. A huge portion of the discussions revolved around the theme of reparations and remedies, prompting me to synthesize noteworthy ideas and initiatives concerning remedies for business-related human rights abuses. Additionally, I aim to delve into the nuanced concept of remedies within this context and shed light on overlooked gaps from the Forum.

In a world where corporate actions can result in human rights violations; the pursuit of remedies emerges as a pivotal element of justice. Globally, the challenge lies in devising effective solutions, with each country grappling with distinct difficulties in holding corporations accountable. To comprehend the diverse approaches and the ongoing quest for justice, let us explore country-specific cases.

Global examples of abuses, regulations, and remedies

In a specific panel on workers' rights, a representative from Malaysia, another from India and a global Union of transport workers spotlighted labour rights abuses within the different industries, exposing the hurdles of holding corporations accountable across intricate global supply chains. Transnational collaboration was emphasized during the panel focusing on strengthening international labor standards and promoting responsible business conduct. Malaysia's experience underscores the imperative need for a unified effort to address labour exploitation, workplace safety, and fair wage enforcement.

Turning to Chile, Indigenous Mapuche communities draw attention to the multifaceted impact of corporate activities on their lives. Their demands, rooted in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (C169) and the Escazu Agreement, emphasize state accountability through robust public policies aligned with international agreements. The call is clear: enforce C169, ratify the Escazu Agreement, and establish mechanisms for reparation, highlighting the Indigenous communities' right to be informed, grant consent freely, and preserve their way of life.

Shifting the focus to the Philippines, the discussion centers on the overarching human rights crisis posed by climate change. The Philippines Commission for Human Rights underscores the disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, emphasizing the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) as watchdogs. The Philippine experience underscores the necessity of integrating human rights into environmental laws and collaborating with civil society to address climate-induced human rights challenges.

In Colombia, the scenario unravels the intricate interplay between corporate actors, armed conflict, and the pursuit of justice. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Rome Statute create a platform where not only state actors but also third parties, including corporations, can be held accountable. The challenge lies in the limitations of legislation and the complexity of pursuing criminal charges against corporations. The emphasis extends beyond punitive measures to include truth-seeking and guarantees against repetition, a delicate balance in post-conflict reconciliation.

Zooming out to a global perspective, the discourse on AI (Artificial Intelligence) and human rights involves key players such as companies, governments, and civil society organizations. In a dedicated panel on generative AI, participants highlight the challenges faced by human rights advocates in the rapidly evolving technology landscape. Balancing the benefits of AI with the potential for human rights abuses necessitates a collaborative effort involving unions, public procurement policies, and global initiatives to ensure responsible AI and access to remedies.

Forum gaps and better understanding of remedies

However, a significant gap in the discussions emerges – the absence of state-led non-judicial mechanisms. Amid increasing cases of human rights violations by companies and lacking mandatory global standards, it is crucial to incorporate stakeholders such as labor regulators, privacy regulators, environmental regulators, and National Human Rights Institutions in the dialogue. Despite their pivotal role in accessing remedies at local and national scales, their voices were conspicuously absent from the forum.

Beyond specific examples of reparation and key actors, the Forum could have delved deeper into the concept of remedies. What does "remedies" truly mean in the context of corporate abuse? Reflecting on Ta-Nehisi Coates' well-known essay, which recognizes the historical extraction of wealth and resources from African Americans by virtually every institution, both public and private, a global perspective could identify similar patterns of exploitation worldwide. Corporations, often with historical ties to colonial powers, have replicated this economic extraction, leading to economic disparities and perpetuating cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Expanding this viewpoint globally, instances of corporate abuse share a common thread – the historical theft of resources from marginalized communities. This perspective establishes a foundation for discussing reparations on a global scale, emphasizing the need for acknowledgment, accountability, and restitution for the economic injustices committed by corporations across different regions.

By framing the issue in this way, there is a call for a more comprehensive understanding of reparations that transcends national borders, recognizing the interconnectedness of historical injustices and the shared responsibility to address them on a global scale. This approach advocates for a collaborative effort to rectify past wrongs and build a more equitable and just future.

Sebastian Smart
12th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights