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10 May 2021

UK civil society campaign for a law on corporate human rights abuses

Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Civil society groups in the UK are campaigning for a new law to establish a ‘failure to prevent’ offence for corporate human rights abuses. This would hold companies legally liable where they fail to take adequate steps to prevent human rights and environmental abuses in their operations or supply chains. It would be modelled on the 2010 Bribery Act.

This law was first proposed in 2017 by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which recommended that:

“the Government bring forward legislation to impose a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses…[which] would require all companies to put in place effective human rights due diligence processes (as recommended by the UN Guiding Principles), both for their subsidiaries and across their whole supply chain….[to] include a defence for companies where they had conducted effective human rights due diligence, and the burden of proof should fall on companies to demonstrate that this has been done.”

The civil society campaign launched in April 2019 with a statement, signed by 23 NGOs and trade unions, calling for “an effective law to require companies and investors to take action to prevent human rights abuses, worker exploitation and environmental harm”.

A February 2020 report from the British Institute for International and Comparative Law found that such a law would be legally feasible in the UK. Further research, co-commissioned by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, has explored the options for enforcing legislation via a specialist independent regulator.

The campaign in the UK reflects a global trend toward laws requiring companies to undertake human rights due diligence, from the French Duty of Vigilance Law to child labour due diligence legislation in the Netherlands. The European Commission is due to announce its own plans for a due diligence law in Summer 2021: further information and analysis on the EU's plans is available here. Major investors and companies are also speaking out in favour of such legislation.

The UK campaign is being coordinated by the Corporate Justice Coalition, with the support of a wide range of organisations.

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