Using Human Rights Mechanisms

If a company causes or contributes to a violation of human rights, you could consider using international, regional or national human rights institutions as part of your advocacy strategy. These bodies generally focus on the human rights obligations of governments, including all government agencies and officials (referred to as “states” under international law). They are often willing to consider the failure of states to protect against human rights violations caused by companies. Increasingly, however, these bodies are also willing to address the human rights responsibilities of businesses directly.

When human rights mechanisms do have a mandate to examine violations caused by companies, they often lack the power to require companies to take remedial action. However, they can still be helpful tools to use to elevate a case and bolster a broader multi-pronged advocacy strategy.

The following are human rights bodies that you could use as part of your advocacy strategy:

National human rights institutions

These are domestic bodies that in some cases have a mandate to promote and protect human rights by handling complaints. The independence, mandates and power granted to national human rights institutions vary widely from country to country. Some can receive and investigate human rights complaints and make recommendations, while others can initiate their own investigations into allegations of human rights issues without first receiving a complaint. Generally speaking, national human rights institutions do not have the power to make binding and enforceable decisions, but their findings and recommendations can still be useful in your broader advocacy strategy. Sometimes national courts can enforce decisions made by national human rights institutions, as is the case with the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and High Court for example.

Traditionally, national human rights institutions have focused on the government’s compliance with human rights, and some can still only investigate complaints against government agencies and officials. Increasingly, though, national human rights institutions have begun to address human rights abuse by companies. According to International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), those with a track record of dealing with business and human rights issues include: Australia, Denmark, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa and Thailand.

The process for filing a complaint and potential outcomes varies by country. You should research the mandates, effectiveness and track records of the national human rights institutions that are relevant to your case to decide whether it’s worth filing a complaint. You will also need to check if the institutions have the power to consider violations of the particular human rights that have been breached in your case. Most have their own website, which will provide you with information about their mandate. It may be possible to engage the institutions of both the country where the violation occurred as well as the home country where the company is based. For more information on national human rights institutions, including a full list of institutions and their ‘accreditation,’ or level of compliance with international standards, see the website of the U.N. Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), including their membership list.

For an example of how community advocates used the national human rights institution of the home country of a transnational corporation to seek redress for violations that the company caused in a host country, see:

Regional human rights bodies

Africa, the Americas and Europe have regional human rights courts and commissions that may be worth using as part of your advocacy strategy. Individuals and communities can file complaints to these bodies to seek justice and remedies for human rights violations committed by a state. It is important to know that you cannot file a complaint directly against a company — only against a state. However, this can include violations that government agencies and officials allowed to occur or failed to prevent, including those caused directly by companies. For instance, if a government failed to prevent a mining company from committing human rights abuses, the state may be held accountable for those human rights violations.

When a complaint is filed at a regional human rights body, it can determine whether the state is responsible for the alleged violation and what it should do to repair the harm. Some of these bodies also have the power to call for “interim measures,” or call on states to take urgent action, or refrain from taking a certain action (such as granting a license for a company to operate) if there is a risk of irreparable harm. The judgements of regional human rights courts, such as the African Court of Justice and Human Rights or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are binding upon states.

Before filing a complaint at a regional human rights body, it is generally necessary to first try resolving grievances at the local or national level, such as in domestic courts.

You can find more information about regional human rights bodies at the International Justice Resource Center. For further detail about using regional mechanisms for corporate accountability purposes specifically, including guidance on filing complaints and expected outcomes from each mechanism, and relevant past cases at each mechanism, see Part III (pages 108-190) of FIDH’s Corporate Accountability Guide.

United Nations human rights mechanisms

Special procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The Special Procedures of the U.N. Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights themes or country-specific issues. These human rights experts can send letters and urgent appeals to governments or other actors, including companies and development banks, to bring alleged violations to their attention. You can submit a complaint about a human rights violation to the relevant thematic expert — including the special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, the rights to food, adequate housing, and on the rights of Indigenous peoples — explaining all of the important facts and requesting that they send a letter to the company, government and/or one or more of the other key actors along the investment and supply chain.

One particularly relevant expert group is the U.N. Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, also known as the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, mandated to promote the effective implementation of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights. You can contact the U.N. Working Group members and request that they, alone or in collaboration with other thematic experts, send a letter to the relevant actors in the investment chain.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has general information on communicating with these thematic experts. It also has contact details for the thematic experts, as well as those who focus on specific countries.

Human rights treaty bodies

The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. You can use these bodies in two ways:

1. States that have ratified or acceded (formally agreed) to human rights treaties are required to report on their compliance with the treaty obligations to the corresponding treaty body every few years. For example, states that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are required to report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on the situation in their country regarding, for example, the rights to an adequate standard of living, education and health. States that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are required to report to the Human Rights Committee regarding rights to, for example, privacy and freedom of expression. While it is governments that must report to the committees, civil society can also provide information, including by submitting parallel reports about the human rights situation or specific cases of human rights abuses. When the country in which the human rights violation occurred reports to a relevant treaty body, you can consider submitting information about your case.

It is also possible to submit information about the case when the home country of a key actor along the investment or supply chain is being reviewed by a relevant treaty body. For example, if a German development bank is financing an overseas project that is contributing to human rights violations, you could submit a parallel report to the treaty body when Germany is being examined. Make sure to clearly explain the connection between the human rights violation and the failure of the home country government to regulate the overseas activities of the company. The treaty body may then address the issue or case in its review of the country and refer to it in its concluding observations, which you can then use to bolster your advocacy.

2. If the state has signed up to the Optional Protocol of the ICCPR or ICESCR, you can submit a complaint, called an individual communication, to the relevant treaty body about the specific violations by the state of its treaty obligations in your case. The complainant must have exhausted all remedies that are available in the relevant state before bringing a claim to a committee. If the committee decides the complaint is admissible, it generally considers the complaint on the basis of written information by the complainants and the government. If the committee decides that the state is in violation of human rights recognized in the treaty, it asks the government to provide information within a set time period about the steps it has taken to give effect to its findings and recommendations to remedy the violation.

You can find out more information about the Human Rights Committee and about the CESCR on their respective websites. You can find out if the relevant country is a party to ICCPR, ICESCR and the Optional Protocols here. You can learn more about submitting an individual communication to treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee and CESCR, here.

Towards a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights

Currently there is no binding international law to regulate the activities of businesses. However, in 2014 the U.N. Human Rights Council created a working group with the mandate to create an international legally binding treaty on the human rights responsibilities of businesses. Since then, there have been several drafts of the binding treaty, the most recent of which was released in August 2021. The draft treaty is still subject to negotiation between U.N. member states and is not yet ready for adoption. Once it is, though, it will place new obligations on states that choose to ratify it and open the door to new opportunities for victims of corporate human rights abuse to pursue remedy.

USEFUL RESOURCES

In addition to human rights organizations in your own country and region, the following international organizations and networks may be able to provide advice and assistance in using international human rights bodies:

Center for International and Environmental Law

The Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

FIAN International

Global Legal Advocacy Network

International Commission of Jurists

International Network for Economic Social & Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net)

International Federation for Human Rights

International Service for Human Rights

International Justice Resource Center

Natural Justice

The ETO Consortium

GUIDES & OTHER RESOURCES

A Practical Guide to the UN Special Procedures, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) (2019)

A Simple Guide to the UN Treaty Bodies, ISHR (2017)

Corporate Accountability for Human Rights Abuses: A Guide for Victims and NGOs on Recourse Mechanisms by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) (2021)

Civil Society Access to International Oversight Bodies, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, International Justice Resource Center (2019)

Civil Society Access to International Oversight Bodies, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, International Justice Resource Center (2018)

General Comment No. 24 on States’ Obligations under ICESR in the Context of Business Activities, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) (2017)

Learning Collection: UN Human Rights Mechanisms, ISHR Academy