Corporate Legal Accountability Annual Briefing

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Latest briefing: Apr 2017

Corporate impunity is common & remedy for victims is rare

Full briefing

This year’s Annual Briefing highlights the rising impunity of companies’ involvement in human rights abuse.  In the context of increasing economic nationalism, this situation runs a high risk of getting worse – particularly where business interests are able to ride populist nationalist politics to acquire deep influence and insulate themselves from accountability.  Unscrupulous companies are increasingly targeting activists, using the justice system to hold them accountable, with repression and lawsuits.  Individual companies and governments may win these cases but the costs are high to wider society, including to a business environment built on respect for open societies, civic space, human rights and the rule of law.  Fortunately, a few governments and companies have taken steps and some courts have issued decisions that can break this cycle, and deserve to be learned from and built on.  Leading global experts, including at the United Nations, have identified additional practical measures that would increase victims’ access to remedy and counter impunity.

The annual briefing has two key sections.

      I.        The impunity of unscrupulous companies regarding human rights abuses is increasing:

  • Plaintiffs in lawsuits against companies and their lawyers are increasingly being subjected to repression and harassment.
  • Companies increasingly use courts as a weapon against those who seek to hold them responsible.
  • Criminal investigations and prosecutions against companies in cases of human rights abuses remain extremely rare despite widespread cases of companies involved in abuse rising to the level of potential crimes.
  • Prospects of success in civil claims for business-related abuses continue to shrink – with virtually no effective remedies in companies’ home countries for most victims of abuses that occur abroad.

    II.        Opportunities to tackle impunity are emerging:

  • Encouragingly, civil society has developed strong responses to protect human rights defenders, including with some governments and leading responsible companies who are increasingly concerned at the loss of civic freedoms.
  • Experts have identified how governments can use criminal law to hold companies accountable for criminal behaviour.  A few governments are taking action.
  • Courts in some countries are increasingly prepared to hear civil claims over companies' responsibility for human rights abuses involving suppliers and subsidiaries.
  • Courts are also beginning to address a serious inequality of power between companies and victims by requiring companies to provide plaintiffs vital information.

 Executive summary also available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish & Russian.

Previous briefings:

February 2016

January 2015

November 2013

June 2012