In its 2015 manifesto the UK Conservative Party pledged to “scrap the Human Rights Act” (p. 60). Having won a clear majority in the recent election, David Cameron and his new conservative government are now in a position to do just that. Repealing the Human Rights Act would mean less government accountability and would negatively affect the daily lives of millions of British people. Some have also warned against the risks of contagion to other countries, including Putin’s Russia, putting millions of others in an even more vulnerable position .
The Human Rights Act is the landmark piece of legislation, adopted by Parliament, that has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act provides that “it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a [European] Convention [on Human Rights] right”. It is a guarantee against arbitrary decisions as it ensures that the government respects the rule of law and human rights at all times, in everything they do. At first glance, therefore, repealing the Human Rights Act would not have any direct impact on the field of business and human rights. After all, the Act requires public authorities, and not companies, to respect human rights.
However, I see four main ways in which the repeal of the Human Rights Act would impact the field of business and human rights.
1. It would set a bad example for companies
The UK prides itself on having been the first country to come up with an Action Plan implementing the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (discussed in this blog here). On paper it is determined to ensure that British companies do no harm when operating abroad. It has also adopted legislation to force large companies to report on their human rights performance. Both initiatives, though limited in scope, are nevertheless of important symbolic significance. The problem with the UK repealing the Human Rights Act, therefore, is that the government’s authority in the human rights area would be greatly diminished. To put it bluntly: who would want to listen to human rights recommendations emanating from a government who disregards human rights? It looks to me like a clear case of “do as I say, not as I do”.
The consequences of this should not be overlooked, especially because it is clear that leadership plays a great role in the business and human rights area. It is about creating the right circumstances for a virtuous corporate culture to develop. But why should businesses bother when those in power don’t?
2. It would deny victims of corporate abuse the possibility to get remedies in the UK
Although there has not been any clear business and human rights cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the Court has held before that states are under an obligation to prevent human rights violations committed by non-state entities, such as corporations. In the landmark 1994 Lopez Ostra case, the Court held that Spain had violated the right of the applicant under Article 8 (right to private life) by failing to prevent a company from polluting the environment, which had negatively affected the applicant’s quality of life.
If the Human Rights Act was to be repealed, victims of similar abuses in the UK would not be able to use Article 8 against the UK authorities before domestic courts should the authorities fail to protect the victims’ rights against corporate abuse. The only way to pursue a human rights claim on the basis of the Convention would be for victims to go before the European Court of Human Rights directly, assuming of course that the new government won’t pull out of the Convention altogether.
3. It would create specific accountability gaps for victims of abuses by companies carrying out public functions such as running prisons or care homes
A number of private companies in the UK run detention centres and care homes, functions that were traditionally carried out by the state. There has been uncertainty over whether the Human Rights Act applies to these situations, or whether it is actually acceptable for the government to ‘contract out its human rights obligations’ (UK Parliament, Report of the Joint Committee, 2009, para. 134). Repealing the Human Rights Act would settle the issue in a highly dangerous way: potential victims, such as vulnerable elderly people, would be placed in a position where their rights would not be adequately protected.
4. It would deny companies, and not only individuals, the protection of the Convention
Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that business and human rights is also about the ‘human rights’ of businesses. Companies may suffer from violations of their rights, as exemplified by some key cases of the European Court of Human Rights brought by news companies in relation to the right to freedom of expression (Observer and Guardian v UK, 1991). As for individuals, repealing the Human Rights Act would mean going back to the pre-Human Rights Act situation in which human rights cases had to be brought directly to Strasbourg, which is much more complicated, long and uncertain. Surely, this is not in the interests of any business.
It is a pleasure to welcome back Dr Jérémie Gilbert as a guest poster on ‘Rights as Usual’. Jérémie is a reader at the University of East London. He is the author of Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights under International Law – From Victims to Actors (Transnational Publishers, 2006) and Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights (Routledge, 2014). This post is his.
On 22 April 2015, in a much-awaited decision against the government of Belize, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) affirmed the rights of the Mayan indigenous communities over their traditional lands (The Maya Leaders Alliance & others v. The Attorney General of Belize, CCJ, April 2015). The case concerned the rights to land of the Mayan communities of Southern Belize who have been fighting for decades to have their rights over traditional lands recognised. The battle of the communities of the Toledo District for the recognition of their land rights must be put in its wider context, that of their opposition to the activities of the Texas-based oil company USCapital Energy, Inc. This blog covered previous CCJ decisions on labour rights and on the unenforceability of an arbitral award on grounds of public policy.
Background to the case: oil exploration in the Toledo District
As reported by Minority Rights Group International,
In 1994, without consulting [the concerned communities], the government converted almost 42,000 acres of their ancestral territory into a national park. The government then opened the park to oil exploration by USCapital Energy Belize, Ltd, a wholly owned Belizean subsidiary of American company USCapital Energy, Inc.
And in 2001, as reported by Cultural Survival, USCapital Energy received a concession from the government to extract oil in Southern Belize. Since then they cut over 200 miles of seismic trails through the national park and community lands. It has also been reported that USCapital Energy began drilling inside the National Park in 2014.
The final decision in a long series of national and international decisions
The decision from the Caribbean Court of Justice hopefully marks the end of a long legal battle, which started more than twenty years ago. In 2004, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report recognizing Maya people’s collective rights to land traditionally used and occupied in Toledo. It also highlighted that by failing to consult and seek their informed consent before granting logging rights and oil concessions on their ancestral land, the government had violated their right to equality enshrined in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.
At the national level, the Supreme Court of Belize quashed the USCapital Energy’s seismic testing permit in 2006, and in 2007 ruled that the Mayan communities of Conejo and Santa Cruz held customary title to their lands and ordered the government to respect and demarcate their territory.
In 2010, in another ruling, the Supreme Court found that all Mayan communities in the Toledo District held customary collective rights over the land and resources. Finally, in April 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the permits granted to the oil company for oil drilling and road construction were unreasonable and unlawful, and in breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All these decisions made clear that the government had an obligation to recognise the collective land ownership of the concerned communities and also to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before awarding concessions on their territories.
Despite decisions at both national and regional levels, the government continued to allow USCapital Energy activities within the region without obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of the local Mayan communities.
Moving forward: consultations before exploitation of resources
The CCJ decision upholds all the previous rulings, and recognises the Maya’s rights to their ancestral lands. It is worth noting that the Court adopted a consent order, meaning that the parties have agreed to settle virtually all the points of contention. An important aspect of this consent order relates to the agreement by the government to establish a process of consultation with the concerned indigenous communities before any outside persons or entities gets permission to exploit resources inside their customary lands.
This decision is of the utmost importance. Not only does it recognise that indigenous peoples land rights should be protected and guaranteed at the national level, but it also means that no concession for exploitation of natural resources can be granted without the consent of the concerned indigenous peoples.
The Court has also declared that it will retain jurisdiction to supervise that the Government commitments are carried out. It has set 30 April 2016 as the day when the litigants will report back to the court on progress made towards the implementation of the agreement. This will give a chance to see whether and how the government has put in place a meaningful system to ensure that the free, prior and informed consent of the communities is respected.
For more information see:
- Chelsea Purvis: ‘Suddenly we have no more power’: Oil drilling on Maya and Garifuna land in Belize (Minority Rights Group International, September 2013):
- Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program: Maya Communities of Southern Belize:
- Audio of the CCJ hearings are available on the CCJ’s website.
Every year it is my pleasure to speak at the International Criminal Court Summer School in Galway, where I used to work. This coming June, once again, I will be presenting on corporate liability in international criminal law. Since last year, exciting developments have occurred in the field: the Special Tribunal for Lebanon became the first international tribunal to consider holding a private corporation criminally liable (for contempt of court), a case was brought at the ICC against the top management of Chevron, and discussions on the proposed business and human rights treaty have included corporate accountability for international crimes. I will be covering these aspects, and much more at the Summer School.
Here is more information on the Summer School:
The ICC Summer School at the Irish Centre for Human Rights is the premier summer school on the International Criminal Court, the world’s permanent institution for the trial of international crimes. This year’s ICC Summer School will take place from 15-19 June 2015 at NUI Galway, Ireland. The Summer School comprises a series of intensive and interactive lectures over five days given by leading academics and legal professionals working at the International Criminal Court. Participants are provided with a detailed working knowledge of the establishment of the Court, its structures, operations, and applicable law. Specific topics covered include international crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity & aggression), jurisdiction, modes of liability, the role of victims and prosecutorial discretion. This year’s Summer School will include a special session on Palestine and the International Criminal Court, which will involve the participation of the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ambassador Ahmad Abdelrazek. The Summer School is suited to postgraduate students, legal professionals, journalists and staff of civil society or intergovernmental organisations.
The 2015 ICC Summer School faculty includes:
Professor William Schabas – Middlesex University & Irish Centre for Human Rights
Professor Kevin Jon Heller – School of Oriental and African Studies, London
Dr. Fabricio Guariglia – Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court
Dr. Mohamed M. El Zeidy – Pre-Trial Chamber II at the International Criminal Court
Dr. Rod Rastan – Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court
Professor Ray Murphy – Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway
Professor Don Ferencz, Visiting Professor, School of Law, Middlesex University; Research Associate, Oxford University Faculty of Law Centre for Criminology
Dr. Kwadwo Appiagyei Atua – University of Ghana and University of Lincoln
Dr. Michael Kearney – School of Law, Sussex University
Dr. Noelle Higgins – Senior Lecturer, Law Department Maynooth University
Ms. Salma Karmi-Ayyoub – Barrister, London
Dr. Nadia Bernaz – School of Law, Middlesex University
Mr. John McManus – Canadian Department of Justice
Professor Megan A. Fairlie – Florida International University
Dr. Mohamed Badar – Northumbria University, United Kingdom
Dr. Shane Darcy – Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway
The deadline for availing of the early bird registration fee of €400 has been extended until 20 April 2015, with the fee for registrations after that date being €450. The closing date for registrations is 30 May 2015. The registration fee includes all course materials, all lunches and refreshments, a social activity and a closing dinner. The registration fee also includes a complimentary copy of: William A. Schabas, Introduction to the International Criminal Court (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 4th ed.).
To register and for more information, please visit the Summer School’s website .
Should you have any queries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On 23 January 2015 the Appeals Panel of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon decided that the Tribunal has jurisdiction in the contempt case against the media company Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. This is the second decision in which this body concludes that the Tribunal has jurisdiction over a legal person (the first one was in the New TV S.A.L. case).
This decision is what appears to be the final development with regard to jurisdiction in the twin contempt cases against New TV S.A.L. and Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. The two media companies are charged with contempt for having revealed names of witnesses of the Tribunal which should have remained confidential.
The Appeals Panel had already ruled the Tribunal had jurisdiction over corporations in contempt cases in New TV S.A.L. in October 2014 (I wrote about this here). This was the first time an international tribunal ever asserted jurisdiction over a corporation. However, in an unexpected turn of events, the contempt judge refused to follow their findings and dropped the case against Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. in November 2014 (see blog post here).
In this final decision in Akhbar Beirut S.A.L., the Appeals Panel confirmed the findings of New TV S.A.L. and criticized the decision of the Contempt Judge to ignore these findings. For the Panel, “it would have been preferable and important for judicial certainty as well as to avoid the fragmentation of the law, for the Contempt Judge to have followed the conclusions of the New TV Jurisdiction Appeal Decision.” [para. 71]
In a strong dissent, Judge Nosworthy argued that the Contempt Judge was bound by the previous decision and that the Panel was wrong in considering that it was simply “preferable” for him to apply it.
While not adding anything new to the discussion over corporate criminal liability under international law, the Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. Appeal Decision is important in that it confirms the findings of New TV S.A.L., which is therefore no longer an isolated decision. Slowly, the notion of corporate criminal liability under international law is gaining ground.
Business and human rights, as I hope this blog has continuously shown, is a multi-faceted field. It touches upon entangled issues such as corruption, the protection of the environment and wildlife, conflicts, survival, poverty, greed, exploitation, racism, development and many more. Because of this complexity, it is often difficult to grasp the different aspects of a given “business and human rights” situation. The superb documentary Virunga, which is currently available on Netflix, does a great job in this regard.
It focuses on the rangers who are trying to save Virunga National Park (in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and home to the last mountain gorillas) from poachers but also from oil exploitation, which if it was to happen would probably sign the death warrant of the park. Interestingly, it also delves into the conflict in the region, outlining its deep roots and absurd brutality. It links the present situation to the Scramble for Africa, starting in the 1880s, the horrifying exploitation of the country by King Leopold of Belgium, well documented in the best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost, and the anti-colonial fights of the 1960s. Every time, business interests played a key part in the abuse.
The oil and gas company named in the film, London-based SOCO International, was brought before the UK OECD National Contact Point (NCP) by WWF International in October 2013. WWF argued that SOCO International was in violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The NCP is tasked to promote the Guidelines and may receive complaints in case of suspected non-compliance (I wrote about NCPs before here and here). The complaint procedure is non-judicial and conciliatory in nature. WWF later withdrew their complaint as an agreement was reached with the company in June 2014. SOCO International committed “not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.” The agreement came as the NCP had accepted to further consider the complaint, a process which could have led to a decision against the company.
It remains to be seen whether the park will continue to be protected in the long run. Hopefully, the awareness raised by the film will help. But of course in such a difficult context there is only so much a film, even a well put together (and co-produced by Hollywood superstar Leonardo Di Caprio) film such as Virunga, can achieve.
As I discussed in a previous post, the Appeals Panel of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon unexpectedly decided in October that the Tribunal has jurisdiction over corporations in contempt proceedings. The decision was taken in relation to case STL-14-05, a contempt case against a news corporation, New TV S.A.L., and Ms Karma Khayat, the company’s Deputy Head of News and Political Programmes Manager. They are both accused of an offence against the administration of justice for having disclosed names of witnesses of the Tribunal in a TV programme.
Here is the coup de théâtre: in a decision on jurisdiction made public today, the contempt judge of the Tribunal held in the twin case STL-14-06, a contempt case against another news corporation, Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. (who owns the newspaper Al Akhbar in which similar information about witnesses was published), and Mr Al Amin, the newspaper’s editor in-chief and chairman of the board of directors, that he was not bound by the Appeals Panel decision. In the contempt judge’s view, the Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over corporate defendants. This in turn was unexpected as it is not every day that international criminal tribunal’s appeals decisions get disregarded. Clearly, corporate criminal liability under international law is a highly contentious issue.
Why did the contempt judge deliberately choose to disregard the Appeals Panel’s decision?
1. In his view, it is a highly debatable decision, with which he strongly disagrees [para. 35-65]. In a nutshell, he considered that the Appeals Panel was wrong in their interpretation of the word “person”, that their use of analogy was improper, that the lack of existing legal precedents was highly problematic and that it was wrong to have recourse to teleological interpretation.
2. He nevertheless acknowledged that he may not have a choice and may be bound to follow the Appeals Panel decision, whether or not he agrees with it [para. 66].
3. In the end he decided that he was not bound by the Appeals Panel’s decision, and he put forward four reasons for this:
a/ because it is an isolated, and indeed unique decision. No other international tribunal has ever prosecuted a corporation for contempt [para. 67].
b/ because there is no stare decisis rule before international criminal tribunals so, being asked to rule on the STL-14-06 case, he is formally not bound by an Appeal Panel’s decision in the STL-14-05 case [para. 68-71].
c/ because the decision of the 3-judge Appeals Panel was not unanimous but instead included a detailed and compelling dissenting opinion [para. 72].
d/ because in his view the STL-14-06 case can be distinguished from the STL-14-05 case. To him, not prosecuting Akhbar Beirut S.A.L. in the STL-14-06 case would not lead to impunity (avoiding impunity was one of the reasons why the Appeals Panel held that the Tribunal should have jurisdiction over corporations) because Mr Al Amin, the newspaper’s editor in-chief and chairman of the board of directors, is also an accused. Although it is not entirely clear, I assume he considers that the STL-14-05 is different in that respect because the natural person charged with contempt in this case, Ms Karma Khayat, is “only” Deputy Head of News and Political Programmes Manager, and not chairman of the board of directors, and therefore cannot be said to represent the company as such. Arguably, it would be wrong to have her “pay” for the acts committed, and to leave the company off the hook.
This important decision is now likely to be appealed and the Appeals Panel will have to look at the issue of jurisdiction over corporate defendants once again. Watch this space for more on this when the Appeal Decision comes out.