Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by War on Want


  War on Want welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry into business and human rights.

  War on Want has long maintained a strong focus on exposing the human rights abuses that UK corporations, both directly and indirectly, commit across the world. These abuses range from the shooting of innocent civilians by UK private military and security companies (PMSCs) to labour rights abuses by companies making goods for UK high street supermarkets.

  The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has clarified that the obligation of the state to protect human rights beyond borders includes a duty to prevent third parties (including companies headquartered within their jurisdiction) from abusing economic, social and cultural Rights in other countries.1

  War on Want believes that the government needs to play a much stronger role in enforcing human rights and ensuring human rights abuses committed by UK corporations, anywhere in the world, are addressed promptly and effectively.

  We do not accept the government's approach to business and human rights, which is based on the use of voluntary initiatives and the promotion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) rather than effective enforcement and redress for affected individuals.

  Research undertaken by War on Want and its partners in the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) coalition reveals that UK companies have committed or contributed to human rights abuses in many countries and contexts.2

  War on Want has itself gathered evidence from our partners and through investigations on the ground in developing countries highlighting human rights abuses committed by UK corporations. Below is a list of reports War on Want has produced relating to this issue:

    — War on Want has published a report highlighting the gross human rights abuses by PMSCs operating in conflict zones such as Iraq.3 Yet despite the many human rights abuses that PMSCs have committed and promises to regulate this sector, the UK government has now proposed industry "self-regulation" instead.4

    — War on Want has published reports on UK mining corporations operating in conflict zones overseas and their complicity in human rights abuses.5 The abuses highlighted include violence and intimidation of local people by paramilitaries and police, arbitrary arrests, physical violence, extrajudicial killings, destruction of houses and the forced displacement of local communities.

    — War on Want has recently published a report on the UK banks' financing of the arms trade, highlighting how many of our high street banks are supporting the arms industry despite their claims to be acting responsibly.6 This includes supporting companies making cluster munitions, which have been condemned by the UN as "immoral"7 and are estimated to have killed as many as 100,000 people.8

    — War on Want has also published a report highlighting the complicity of companies in human rights abuses committed against the Palestinian people.9 These human rights abuses include the destruction of Palestinian homes, schools, orchards and olive groves and have resulted in the forced displacement of Palestinian families and the loss of human lives.

    — War on Want has produced a number of reports highlighting the human rights abuses suffered by workers supplying goods for well-known high street companies. These include reports on garment workers, flower workers and wine workers from overseas supplying UK supermarkets.10 The abuses concerned include physical and verbal harassment, severe breaches of health and safety standards, intimidation and imprisonment of trade unionists, denial of the right to protest, excessive working hours and unfair wages.

  War on Want has also produced a number of alternative company reports to compare and contrast the rhetoric of CSR with the reality of companies' actual practices:

    — War on Want's Anglo American report exposes the company's complicity in extrajudicial killings and forced displacement of local communities in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as other human rights abuses in Ghana, Botswana, Mali, South Africa and the Philippines.11

    — War on Want's Coca-Cola report exposes the company's role in denying farmers and local communities in India adequate water due to overextraction from local aquifers. Coca-Cola has been accused of complicity in the intimidation and torture of trade unionists in Turkey, as well as union-busting activities in Pakistan, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Russia.12

    — War on Want's Asda Wal-Mart report reveals the company's violation of workers' rights and anti-trade union activities in Canada, China, Honduras and the UK.13

    — War on Want's Caterpillar report highlights the use of Caterpillar bulldozers in Israel's occupation of Palestine.14 Caterpillar equipment has been used in the destruction of Palestinian homes, schools, orchards and olive groves and the construction of the Separation Wall, which Israel has built on illegally occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.

  These reports clearly illustrate how UK corporations operating across different sectors can commit or be complicit in a broad range of human rights abuses, including abuses of economic, social and cultural rights. We believe that it is essential that the Joint Committee consider the full range of human rights—as was also acknowledged by Professor Ruggie, UN Special Representative on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations, when developing his framework for business and human rights. This reinforces the UN Special Representative's view that the human rights issues confronting companies are wide-ranging and far-reaching.15

CSR is not an acceptable mechanism for enforcing human rights

  War on Want believes that companies must be made accountable for their complicity in human rights abuses if there is to be any possibility of preventing further abuses in future. Rather than calling British companies to account, however, the UK government continues to offer companies support in developing countries, irrespective of the harm which may be caused to local communities as a result of their operations.

  This support for UK corporations is complemented by the government's promotion of the voluntary approach of CSR. The British government has consistently championed voluntary codes of conduct for industry, and opposed the introduction of international frameworks of regulation on the grounds that these "may divert attention and energy away from encouraging corporate social responsibility and towards legal processes".16 War on Want has repeatedly challenged the government's promotion of voluntary codes and other CSR initiatives, seeing as these have been manufactured as a deliberate and open attempt to avoid the introduction of binding rules which would offer genuine corporate accountability.

  In a review of the effectiveness of CSR by the Department for International Development (DFID), many of the existing voluntary initiatives were found not to be integrated into the operations of corporations.17 For example, with respect to the UN Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, DFID found only a few companies had attempted to integrate these principles into their own operations, let alone include them in contracts with their suppliers.

  The failings of this approach have been spelled out clearly by Professor John Ruggie in his February 2007 report to the UN Human Rights Council. Having surveyed existing instruments of corporate accountability in national and international law, Ruggie drew attention to the "large protection gap for victims" which exists as a result of the international community's reliance on voluntary initiatives. He concluded: "This misalignment creates the permissive environment within which blameworthy acts by corporations may occur without adequate sanctioning or reparation. For the sake of the victims of abuse, and to sustain globalization as a positive force, this must be fixed."18

Limitations of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission

  The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is able to investigate suspected breaches of human rights law by UK corporations. For example, the EHRC commissioned an inquiry into the UK meat processing industry within the UK and its potential impact on issues of discrimination and inequality.19 However, its powers of investigation only extend to suspected breaches of specific UK "equality and human rights enactments" and not to the operations of UK companies abroad.20 The ECHR also lacks the legal power to recommend new human rights laws. If the UK were to address the extra-territorial impacts of its companies on human rights, even in very selective circumstances, then this would almost certainly require the enactment of new UK legislation.


  While governments as signatories to UN Conventions covering human rights are primarily responsible for ensuring they are respected and enforced, corporations themselves are not exempt from ensuring they actively promote and enforce human rights wherever their sphere of influence reaches.

Sphere of influence

  Modern corporations are integrated into the global economy through their extensive supply chains, with a varying degree of control over companies and businesses within those chains. It is also well known that corporations often deliberately structure their operations so that their subsidiaries are legally separate entities, in order to protect themselves from future legal and financial liabilities.21

  War on Want believes UK corporations must be required to ensure that human rights of individuals and local communities are respected wherever they operate or have influence over a business within their supply chain.

Corporate complicity

  War on Want's experience of working with partner organisations in conflict zones reveals that corporations may not always be directly involved in human rights abuses but can still be complicit in these abuses. Human rights lawyers have distinguished between three types of corporate complicity in such abuses.

  "Silent complicity" is held to exist where companies fail to speak out against clear patterns of human rights violation in their areas where they are operating. "Beneficial complicity" pertains when companies are the beneficiaries of human rights abuses committed by state forces—as in many of the cases described in our two reports Fanning the Flames and Fuelling Fear.22 "Direct complicity" occurs when a company provides assistance to a body which then commits a human rights violation, even if the company itself did not wish the violation to happen: "it is enough if the corporation or its agents knew of the likely effects of their assistance".23

Supply chains

  War on Want believes that corporations must be required to take responsibility for human rights within their supply chains. Companies routinely use their contractual relationships with suppliers to ensure that products and services purchased meet certain technical and quality standards. Failure to comply with these standards can lead to penalties and ultimately the cancellation of contracts.

  War on Want's experience is that voluntary initiatives which are put forward to ensure "socially responsible" behaviour are typically ignored or downplayed, while other factors such as purchasing practices and profits are afforded more importance. One well documented example is that of high street retailers that have signed up to a voluntary initiative to ensure ethical labour practices in their supply chain when sourcing garments from overseas.24

  The failure of this approach was highlighted by a shareholder resolution put forward at Tesco's Annual General Meeting in 2007. The resolution requested the company appoint independent auditors to ensure that workers in its supplier factories and farms are guaranteed "decent working conditions, a living wage, job security" and the right to join a trade union of their choice.25 Tesco opposed the resolution, even though it only called on the company to abide by the ethical labour practices Tesco claimed its suppliers were already signed up to.26


  While there are numerous voluntary initiatives and codes of practice promoting "socially responsible" behaviour for corporations there are no administrative bodies or procedures that offer effective redress or remedies for victims of abuse committed by UK companies overseas.27 The best known international mechanism for allowing victims of corporate abuse to challenge poor corporate practice is the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The limitations of existing mechanisms

  Under the Guidelines, National Contact Points (NCPs) were established in OECD countries to investigate potential breaches of the Guidelines brought forward by complainants. Yet the NCP can only provide mediation and adjudication with respect to disputes between parties, and it has limited investigative capacity and no enforcement powers. Case studies conducted by a number of NGOs have illustrated that the structural weaknesses of the NCP mechanism have not been addressed by the review and restructuring implemented by the government in 2006.28 At the heart of these weaknesses is the inability of the NCP to impose penalties on companies or award compensation to victims.

  These weaknesses cannot be addressed by procedural changes, so putting additional resources into strengthening this mechanism is unlikely to be a productive avenue for the UK government to pursue.

Barriers to redress in host countries

  Clearly, when abuses of rights occur it is the duty of governments to ensure the provision of effective mechanisms of legal redress. Where there are concerns around insufficient capacity within countries hosting foreign companies, the UK can provide support for capacity building to help to promote effective human rights protection.

  However, studies and years of experience amassed by War on Want partners in developing countries show that there are systemic barriers to effective redress.29 Often these are not legal barriers but practical and financial barriers to accessing avenues of redress; capacity barriers with respect to regulatory authorities and judicial systems; and motivational barriers arising from governments' subordination of the protection of rights to other private or public goals.

  The systemic nature of barriers to redress in developing countries suggests that the strengthening of local systems of redress would be an insufficient approach to protecting the human rights of workers and communities affected by the business activities of UK companies abroad.30

Proposal for a UK Commission on Business, Human Rights and the Environment

  On the basis of a detailed review of possible avenues for reforming existing systems, the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) coalition has proposed the creation a new body to address the human rights responsibilities of companies when operating abroad.31 It proposes that the government should create a specialised Commission for Business, Human Rights and the Environment able to operate as a hub for a broader network of actors working in the UK and abroad. The Commission would have coordinating, capacity building and informational roles, while also operating as a dispute resolution body with a mandate to receive, investigate and settle complaints against UK parent companies relating to abuse in other countries.

  War on Want supports such a body, which it believes could make a significant difference to addressing the human rights abuses committed by UK companies operating overseas and, importantly, help victims of such abuse to seek legal redress.


1  See the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No.14, para 39 and General Comment No.15, para 33.

2  Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition and London School of Economics (LSE), The reality of rights: Barriers to accessing remedies when business operates beyond borders, April 2009.

3  War on Want, Corporate Mercenaries: The threat of private military and security companies, November 2006.

4  J Hilary, "Miliband and the Mercenaries", Guardian, 28 April 2009.

5  War on Want, Fanning the Flames: The role of British mining companies in conflict and the violation of human rights, November 2007; War on Want, Anglo American: The alternative report, August 2007.

6  War on Want, Banking on Bloodshed: UK high street banks' complicity in the arms trade, October 2008.

7  R Norton-Taylor, P Walker and agencies, "Cluster Bomb Treaty: Signing Begins to Bring Ban on Production", Guardian, 3 November 2008.

8  Handcap International, Circle of Impact: The Fatal Footprint of Cluster Munitions on People and Communities, May 2007.

9  War on Want, Profiting from the Occupation: Corporate complicity in Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people, July 2006.

10  War on Want, Sour Grapes: South African wine workers and British supermarket power, February 2009; War on Want, Fashion Victims II: How UK clothing retailers are keeping workers in poverty, December 2008; War on Want, Growing Pains: The human cost of cut flowers in UK supermarkets, March 2007.

11  War on Want, Anglo American: The alternative report, August 2007.

12  War on Want, Coca-Cola: The alternative report, March 2006.

13  War on Want, Asda Wal-Mart: The alternative report, September 2005.

14  War on Want, Caterpillar: The alternative report, March 2005.

15  Report of John Ruggie, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, to the UN Human Rights Council, 7 April 2008, para 52.

16  DFID, DFID and corporate social responsibility, 2003.

17  Business & Human Rights Associates, Corporate Responsibility and its Impact on Poverty, October 2007

18  Business and Human Rights: Mapping International Standards of Responsibility and Accountability for Corporate Acts, Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, UN document A/HRC/4/035, 9 February 2007.

19  Equality and Human Rights Commission media release, "Commission announces independent inquiry into the treatment of workers in the meat processing industry", 17 October 2008.

20  See the list of enactments in section 33 of the Equality Act 2006.

21  H Ward, "Corporate accountability in search of a treaty? Some insights from foreign direct liability", Briefing Paper No 4, The Royal Institute of International Affairs Sustainable Development Programme, May 2002.

22  War on Want, Fanning the Flames: The role of British mining companies in conflict and the violation of human rights, November 2007; War on Want, Fuelling Fear: The human cost of biofuels in Colombia, May 2008.

23  A Clapham and S Jerbi, "Categories of Corporate Complicity in Human Rights Abuses", in Hastings International Comparative Law Journal, vol 24, 2001,pp339-349; this three-fold typology has been adopted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its online Human Rights and Business course, which argues that examples of direct rather than simply beneficial complicity could include cases "where a company provides information, funding or equipment to a government that it knows will be used to violate human rights"; see

24  War on Want, Fashion Victims II: How UK clothing retailers are keeping workers in poverty, December 2008.

25  J Finch, "Investor forces ethics onto Tesco agenda", Guardian, 14 May 2007.

26  R Wray, "Tesco execs on the rack at AGM", Guardian, 29 June 2007.

27  Corporate Responsibility (CORE) coalition, Filling the Gap: A new body to investigate, sanction and provide remedies for abuses committed by UK companies abroad, 2008.

28  Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), Fit for Purpose? A Review of the UK National Contact Point (NCP) for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, 2008.

29  CORE and LSE, The reality of rights: Barriers to accessing remedies when business operates beyond borders, April 2009.

30  Ibid.

31  Ibid, pp41-43.

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Prepared 16 December 2009