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UK government letting British companies "off the hook" for human rights abuses - new report

UK companies, including BT and Vodafone, may be getting away with human rights abuses abroad because the government’s system of handling complaints against them is grossly inadequate, Amnesty International UK warned in a new report published today.

The 80-page report - Obstacle Course: How the UK’s National Contact Point handles human rights complaints under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises - exposes the system as not fit for purpose as it lets companies off the hook when human rights abuses are alleged against them. Its treatment of complaints, the report says, is inconsistent, unreliable, biased towards businesses and out of kilter with the standards it is supposed to uphold.

The National Contact Point (NCP), as the service is known, is a non-judicial mechanism to hold companies to account over breaches of international standards set by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on labour rights, human rights, the environment and preventing corruption, among others. The UK is one of 46 countries to have an NCP and it champions its version as a success, but Amnesty’s report challenges this. Sixty per cent of human rights complaints in the last five years have been rejected without investigation, leaving individuals and whole communities at greater risk of abuse. Twelve per cent have been referred to other NCPs.

Housed in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, complaints are considered by a panel of civil servants unqualified to make complex human rights judgements and lacking the resources to properly investigate claims put to them, while the UK insists that complainants put forward a level of evidence higher than that required by the OECD guidelines and higher than that which the companies are required to provide in their defence.

The shortcomings of the UK’s NCP send worrying signals to companies that contributing to human rights abuses is acceptable. Its failure to investigate cases properly has allegedly allowed companies to avoid accountability, even in cases where serious abuses are alleged, such as:

·         BT providing communications and surveillance services to a military base in Djibouti from which armed US drones carry out lethal missions over Yemen

·         Vodafone, BT and others allowing GCHQ access to its networks for the mass interception of data such as Facebook posts, emails and phone calls, under the UK government’s Tempora program which it then shared with the US authorities


Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s business and human rights expert, said:

“The UK holds up this system as one of the best in the world but the stats speak for themselves. It cannot be right that over 70 per cent of cases brought to the National Contact Point are rejected or referred elsewhere before any investigation is carried out. When complaints are considered, the lack of human rights expertise to scrutinise them is a major problem, leading to unfair decisions.

“This study reinforces the stark reality - that the government is failing victims of human rights abuses while giving companies an easy ride. If this continues, individuals and whole communities around the world will receive little protection from this complaints mechanism, even when they are at risk of serious abuses by UK companies. Businesses that could be excellent ambassadors for the UK will have less incentive to conform to international standards when allegations against them are not examined properly. The system needs a complete overhaul.”

Of the 25 human rights complaints in the last four years, only one was fully accepted by the NCP - this was against the technology company Gamma which was selling surveillance software to Bahrain that was used to target human rights activists, some of whom were alleged to have been arrested and tortured. The NCP recommended that Gamma participate in best business practice schemes and make its communications more transparent, and that it provide remedy for victims of abuses in which its products played a role.

Six cases were partially accepted, including one against Formula One for organising the race in Bahrain in the midst of ongoing human rights violations, which the complainants - Bahrain Watch and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain - said would lead to further abuses. After mediation between the two sides, Formula One publicly committed to respecting human rights in all its operations and to develop a due diligence policy. Another complaint against G4S found the company ‘technically in breach’ of human rights guidelines for providing equipment used at Israeli military checkpoints and in prisons which the complainant - Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights - said contributed to serious human rights violations, including against children.

Amnesty International is calling on the government to incorporate into the NCP a panel of experts with sufficient human rights experience to assess complaints fairly, to ensure that their appointment is overseen by an independent body rather than BIS, to end the requirement for unreasonably high levels of evidence from complainants and to ensure that assessments take into account the possible future human rights impact of a company’s activity. Furthermore, when a company is found in breach of the guidelines it should face consequences in keeping with the gravity of the breach, such as denial of access to export credits.

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