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Do victims of corporate human rights violations get justice?

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Holding big business responsible for its human rights violations is difficult and many victims never get justice, finds a new report from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). This is due to the complexity of multinational corporations spanning different countries with networks of subsidiaries and supply chains. The report identifies practical, procedural and financial barriers the EU and its Member States should eliminate to ensure victims of such violations have access to effective remedies.

The scales of justice are tipped more towards big business than victims. But businesses large and small need to be held to account for their actions, no matter where they occur. In today’s globalised world, these actions can affect the human rights of someone far away,” says FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty. “The EU and its Member States need to level the playing field so victims can seek and get justice simply and effectively for any violation of their rights.

The ‘Business and human rights – access to remedy’ report finds that victims have difficulties seeking justice using existing routes through the courts or alternative non-judicial solutions.

Business-related human rights abuses may fall under civil, criminal or administrative proceedings. They differ, each with their own specific needs requiring victims to seek justice differently.

To address the imbalance and allow victims have better access to effective remedies when harm occurs, FRA calls on the EU and Member States to:

  1. Shift the burden of proof to address inequalities between victims and business, and oblige companies to disclose the information victims need to establish a claim, as proving wrongdoing or liability is often a major obstacle for victims.
  2. Make it possible and simpler for individuals to use collective redress or representative action. This includes extending laws on collective action to cover business-related human rights abuse.
  3. Financially and legally support civil society organisations and court alternatives like national human rights institutions, Ombuds institutions and consumer organisations, so they can represent individual or groups of victims.
  4. Review legal aid rules so victims can afford to challenge businesses as cases can be costly and companies are richer.
  5. Clarifying legal responsibility in cross-border corporate rights abuse cases as companies and their subsidiaries operate across countries beyond the jurisdiction on national courts, which makes it difficult for victims to hold companies responsible.
  6. Require companies to assess the human rights impact of their activities to minimise the risk of abuse.

For this report, FRA interviewed business and human rights experts and practitioners in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom in 2019 and 2020.

The fieldwork builds on FRA’s 2017 Opinion on ‘Improving access to remedy in the area of business and human rights at the EU level’.