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The UK is sweeping away human rights complaints against companies

F1 World Management had an NCP complaint lodged against it for holding the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain, where human rights abuses by the authorities are rife. The complaint was only partially accepted.


It seems somewhat perverse that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which exists primarily to promote UK business interests should house what is supposed to be an ‘impartial’ complaints mechanism to deal with alleged breaches of a little known international standard of conduct.  Welcome to the UK’s National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises!

Although this process is low-key, with none of the trappings of criminal proceedings or civil litigation, most of the complaints relate to serious human rights abuses with enormous consequences for affected individuals and communities. These include allegations that a UK company Gamma sold intrusive surveillance technology to the Bahrain government which was used to target human rights activists some of whom were arrested and tortured.

There are complaints against Telecommunications companies, including BT and Vodafone, for allowing GCHQ access to its networks for the mass and indiscriminate interception of data such as Facebook posts, emails and phone calls. The oil and gas company BG has been cited for being part of a consortium causing pollution that is harming the health of residents of a village in Kazakhstan. Complaints against mining companies have been filed for projects that are likely to lead to the destruction of eco-systems, forced evictions and loss of livelihoods.

While the UK has been winning plaudits from its peers in the OECD for having a well-functioning National Contact Point (NCP), a different story has been told by complainants who have alleged human rights abuses by UK companies. This has prompted Amnesty International to investigate whether the UK NCP is all that it is cracked up to be.

Our findings are astonishing. We reveal that most complainants to the NCP have been stymied in having their human rights complaints taken seriously and that some have not been dealt with in accordance with the OECD’s procedures. 60% of all complaints were rejected before they were even examined. Only one complaint was fully accepted.

Our study focuses on 25 complaints submitted to the UK NCP since the OECD Guidelines were revised in 2011 to put greater emphasis on human rights in keeping with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Most but not all of these complaints relate to UK companies.

There is a lack of consistency in the way complaints are dealt with, and a tendency to give more weight to the evidence provided by companies in their defence than the evidence provided by complainants. Companies are allowed to cite commercial confidentiality as a pretext for withholding relevant information, while NGOs are expected to come up with new information that is not already in the public domain.

All too often, the circumstances faced by affected communities are ignored, even when their situation on the ground is deteriorating as the complaint is being processed.

Bizarrely, the UK NCP is reluctant to address future threats to human rights arising from a company’s proposed activities, such as an open-pit coal-mining project in a highly populated region of Bangladesh, where UN human rights experts have warned of the serious human rights violations that would occur, including damage to ecosystems and impacts on rights to water, food, livelihood and housing. The UK NCP’s downplaying of future impacts is at odds with the preventive purpose of the OECD Guidelines.

At the root of the problem are the inbuilt contradictions in having complaints assessed by the same government department that is responsible for promoting British business interests. This is made worse by the apparent lack of human rights expertise on the part of the civil servants handling the complaints. Their interpretations of the substance of cases reveal basic misunderstandings of human rights concepts and norms.

These shortcomings, taken together, are far-reaching and cannot be resolved by a bit of tinkering with the complaints handling process. This is why we’re calling for the UK NCP to be revamped with an Independent Panel of Experts to handle the initial assessment and examination of complaints. We’re also calling for the NCP Steering Board to be reconstituted to ensure it has the necessary expertise and impartiality from vested interests to exercise effective oversight and to review cases where appropriate.

We want to see more cases accepted for examination, more companies that breach the OECD Guidelines to be cited, improvements in company conduct as a result of these complaints being brought and, above all, improvements in the situation of affected communities. This should not be too much to ask for from a complaints mechanism which is intended to address the human rights impacts of companies, but has so far largely failed to do so.

Call on the UK government to hold companies to account: sign our petition to Secretary of State for Business Sajid Javid

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