Initiative on enhancing accountability and access to remedy in cases of business involvement in human rights abuses

Strengthening access to remedy

The right to a remedy is a core tenet of the international human rights system, and the need to strengthen access to remedy is also recognized in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

However, extensive research has shown that in cases where business enterprises are involved in human rights abuses, victims often struggle to access remedy. The challenges that victims face are both practical and legal in nature. To begin to address these challenges, OHCHR has recently launched a programme of work that aims to contribute to a fairer and more effective system of domestic law remedies in cases of business involvement in severe human rights abuses.

This programme, which has also received a mandate from the Human Rights Council (resolution 26/22), aims to deliver credible, workable guidance to States to enable more consistent implementation of the Guiding Principles in the area of access to remedy. The guidance will be developed through inclusive multi-stakeholder processes, and will be designed to take into account different legal systems, cultures, traditions and levels of economic development.

The programme of work comprises six distinct, but interrelated projects, which range from getting clarity on the legal tests for corporate accountability for involvement in gross human rights abuses to strategies to overcome financial obstacles to accessing remedy mechanisms. The projects have been selected because of their strategic value and potential to improve accountability from a practical, victim-centred perspective.

Background to this initiative

The question of how to secure accountability and access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses has long been an issue on the business and human rights agenda.  Research by civil society organizations, academics and others has found that judicial systems often fail to hold companies to account and to ensure effective remedy for victims. This situation is particularly acute in cases involving gross human rights abuses and other particularly serious offenses – such as slavery, torture, extra-judicial killings, forced and child labour, and large-scale harm to human health and livelihoods. While such offenses are most often perpetrated by states, companies can be involved either as offenders or by being complicit in such abuses.

As part of its mandate to advance the protection of and respect for human rights, in February 2014, OHCHR launched a process aimed at contributing to a fairer and more effective system of domestic law remedies to address corporate liability for gross human rights abuses. As the first step in this process, OHCHR published an independent study by legal expert Dr. Jennifer Zerk. This study examines the effectiveness of domestic judicial mechanisms in relation to business involvement in gross human rights abuses. The study identifies barriers to accessing justice at domestic level, and the effects of differences in domestic approaches on the way that remedial systems are used in practice. OHCHR invited all interested stakeholders to submit feedback on the issues identified and recommendations made in the study.

Reporting to the Human Rights Council

In June 2014 the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/22, which requests the High Commissioner to “continue the work to facilitate the sharing and exploration of the full range of legal options and practical measures to improve access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses, in collaboration with the Working Group, and to organize consultations with experts, States and other relevant stakeholders to facilitate mutual understanding and greater consensus among different views.” OHCHR submitted a progress report to the Human Rights Council in June 2015. In May 2016, OHCHR published its final report to the Human Rights Council, containing guidance to States on how to strengthen aspects of domestic judicial systems to improve accountability and access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses. The final report is accompanied by an addendum which provides explanatory notes to the guidance. The guidance in the report is based on the outcomes and from the research and consultations undertaken for the Accountability and Remedy Project. 

Key resources