Remedying human rights abuses: a positive role for sustainability systems

A core tenet of the international human rights system is that when people’s rights are harmed or abused, there must be access to effective remedies. The aim of remediation is to redress any human rights harms and to ensure that such harms do not recur.

The world is seeing increased public, financial and legislative scrutiny of corporate action from a human rights perspective. Companies are rapidly investing in due diligence in their supply chains, risk mapping, and training staff and suppliers to mitigate salient human rights risks. Despite these efforts, abuse of human rights persists across many supply chains and sectors. This makes it critical to go beyond risk mitigation and to act on remediation in the business and human rights space.

Remediation within the UN Guiding Principles 

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) recognise and place emphasis on remediation, particularly:

  • The state’s duty to uphold human rights, investigate and punish offenders (Article 1).
  • The corporate duty to provide for, or cooperate in, remediation for harms that they have caused or contributed to (Article 22). 

The UNGPs go further and recognise the key role that non-state and non-corporate multistakeholder initiatives can play in facilitating access to, and enabling, remediation. Article 30 of the UNGPs requires that “Industry, multi-stakeholder and other collaborative initiatives that are based on respect for human rights-related standards should ensure that effective grievance mechanisms are available” for rights-holders. Sustainability standards and similar systems are one such type of multistakeholder initiative. 

There are several reasons why rights-holders may prefer to approach an independent sustainability system (multistakeholder initiative) when their rights have been harmed: 

  • Accessibility – the grievance mechanism of an independent, global scheme may be easier to navigate than the mechanism of the state or a large corporate. 
  • Safety and trust – a worker may prefer to raise a complaint with a third party than with the company that employs them for fear of retaliation. 
  • The reality of how global supply chains operate – given the transnational and opaque nature of supply chains, it is difficult to identify who is responsible for a violation. In some cases, it may be easier to raise a grievance with a trusted and credible presence through an independent scheme. 

These arguments point to a clear role for voluntary sustainability systems in facilitating remedy. As remediation is key in the human rights’ due diligence cycle, it is also timely for these schemes to consider their place in ‘the remedy ecosystem’.

The role of sustainability systems in remediating human rights harms

Over the last year, ISEAL has worked with its Community Members to advance thinking and action on remediation in relation to human rights abuses. Our member dialogue series supported by the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs and in partnership with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has explored how sustainability systems can strengthen their work on remediation. The questions of legitimacy and mandate of voluntary sustainability schemes in facilitating remediation was an early topic of discussion. If the duty to protect rests with the state and primary accountability for their actions with businesses, what role is there for voluntary sustainability schemes?

Sustainability systems can play a key role in remedying human rights abuses primarily by enhancing access to remedy. This can be achieved through such schemes setting up their own grievance mechanism (at the scheme level) or requiring through their standards that certified entities set up grievance mechanisms (at the site level). In both cases, it is critical not just for such mechanisms to exist, but for them to be effective. 

Effective grievance mechanisms

The UNGPs are clear on what makes a grievance system effective and ISEAL’s work has focussed on improving its Community Members’ ability to meet these criteria, building on guidance from the UN Accountability and Remedy Project. 

For example, accessibility is key, and a grievance mechanism should provide a range of options through which rights-holders can raise complaints in multiple languages. Legitimacy requires that a mechanism is trusted by those who it is intended for and so it is vital that schemes invest in trust-building, stakeholder dialogue and independence to maintain legitimacy. A focus on equitability is needed to ensure that aggrieved parties have reasonable access to the sources of information, advice, and expertise necessary to engage in a grievance process on fair, informed and respectful terms.  

There is opportunity for sustainability schemes to improve their systems, procedures, and policies on remediation. ISEAL’s Effective Grievance Mechanism Self-Assessment Tool is an important first step towards helping its Community Members on this improvement journey. 

Resolving grievances and facilitating remedy

Although improving access to remedy is a key step, ISEAL has also explored how voluntary sustainability systems can facilitate the realisation of remedy outcomes for rights-holders. This is far more challenging as schemes need to see themselves not just as avenues for raising grievances, but as mediums for resolving them too. 

This discussion has raised important questions. How far can voluntary sustainability systems go in facilitating remedy? With whom does accountability rest for resolving grievances? How can schemes be relevant without raising expectations from stakeholders that all grievances will be resolved? What resources are needed to facilitate remediation at a global scale? 

More work is needed to clarify the role of sustainability schemes in facilitating remedy at the ground level and generating learning on how best they can do this. Finding the right field-level partners to support remediation and encouraging schemes that work in the same sector and region to collaborate are two concrete ideas that have emerged thus far. 

The business and human rights space is rapidly evolving. As new legislative measures raise the bar on corporate accountability for human rights harms, the spotlight is also on how sustainability systems are responding. Our work suggests that, in addition to recognising human rights in their standards, there’s a clear role for schemes to play in redressing harms. Taking this next step will be a key differentiator between those content with doing no harm and those seeking to protect and advance business respect for human rights. 

ISEAL will continue to challenge its Community Members on system improvement and drive impacts through more innovation and collaboration in the next phase of our work on remediation.