Every year, millions of people have their rights violated through one of the most basic and necessary parts of their lives: their work.
Laborers may be unlawfully fired or suffer reprisals for exercising their civil liberties, such as their right to assembly and association. People are sometimes forced to work long hours for low wages, often in dangerous work environments with poor health standards; and at times, they’re not provided a wage at all.
Companies don’t just impact their own employees — their actions can have a massive impact along supply chains, with some of them reaching around the world, impacting people, as well as labor, environmental, and other standards along the way.
Still, despite countless laws that work to address and prevent human rights violations, the sad reality is that there are many instances of private corporations taking advantage of loopholes and legal gaps to avoid accountability.
That is why international agencies, governing bodies, civil society, and human rights defenders are actively working to improve upon current laws.
Today, three global initiatives are gaining traction in upgrading the regulation of human rights in the private sector.
There could soon be a federal anti-SLAPP law in the US.
SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are a tactic used by corporations to silence their critics. Anyone who exercises their civil liberties to critique a corporation’s activities may find themselves the defendant in a SLAPP suit, which can often take the form of a libel or defamation suit.
Currently in the US, 32 states have some form of anti-SLAPP legislation to protect defendants and punish the corporations that file these baseless lawsuits against them. However, the lack of a federal law makes it difficult to consistently track, manage, and discourage these tactics, particularly when states have different ways of dealing with them.
According to Kirk Herbertson, a senior policy advisor at EarthRights International, “having [a federal law] is important because many SLAPP filers have engaged in forum shopping to evade anti-SLAPP laws,” allowing them to continue violating people’s civil liberties.
As a result of these workarounds, US Congressman Jamie Raskin introduced the draft SLAPP Protection Act in the US House of Representatives in September 2022 (he also announced it on the Global Citizen Festival stage). This piece of legislation is similar to other anti-SLAPP laws in protecting victims by allowing courts to quickly dismiss SLAPP lawsuits, as well as requiring the corporations that filed a SLAPP to pay their defendants’ legal fees.
Other hallmarks of the draft SLAPP Protection Act are its emphasis on ensuring SLAPP lawsuits are accurately labeled, so as not to prevent fair lawsuits — such as civil rights and public interest cases — from taking place. By ensuring just lawsuits are not unfairly labeled as SLAPPs, federal courts can more confidently impose consequences on SLAPP filers without wasting time or court fees.
2. Companies in the EU could soon have to account for environmental and human rights violations across their supply chains.
According to a 2020 study from the European Commission, only 37% of business respondents conduct environmental and human rights due diligence, making it difficult to identify and mitigate human rights risks across companies’ supply chains. As a result of this gap, civil society groups across the EU have advocated for a stronger legal framework to improve corporate accountability concerning human rights and the environment.
The recently agreed-upon Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) seeks to achieve these goals by outlining the routines and standards that certain companies operating within an EU member state must follow when it comes to addressing human rights risks in their operations and business relationships. It is also a step forward in allowing victims of harm caused through company operations to seek remedy through EU courts.
“The CSDDD, though far from perfect, is a critical milestone for ensuring companies are held accountable for their responsibility to respect human rights and the environment. If swiftly implemented, this new unified EU-wide standard for human rights and environmental due diligence could offer greater clarity, consistency, and a level of predictability across markets. The directive's emphasis on thorough due diligence, stakeholder engagement, transparency, and access to remedy can contribute to improving access to basic human rights around the EU, ” said Annabel Lee McShane, director of private sector policy at Global Citizen.
In terms of company impacts on the environment, the CSDDD states that large companies must now routinely assess and correct any negative impacts on human rights and the environment found within their operations. As part of this legislation, companies are required to draft and implement their emission reduction transition plans in order to reduce their contribution to rapid climate change. This is important because company progress on reducing their climate impact will now be monitored for compliance by national authorities around the EU. In addition, the directive outlines the penalties that businesses can incur for not conducting their due diligence.
Despite major progress, there are some notable areas where more work is needed. The directive is only mandatory for 13,000 large companies, meaning that most corporations are currently excluded — including within the financial sector. Excluding the financial sector is a missed opportunity to encourage greater due diligence of their clients (this is key given the financial sector is often responsible for banking the fossil fuel industry and companies complicit in human rights violations). Additionally, some members of civil society are concerned that the CSDDD does not provide adequate support for human rights defenders who sound the alarm on companies’ poor tactics.
“Many organizations, including Global Citizen, have been calling for the commission to include a specific obligation on companies to take steps to prevent retaliation against human rights defenders by companies. The protection of human rights defenders, especially environmental defenders who often face the greatest risk, should be one of the measures of success of implementation of this legislation,” McShane said.
3. The UN is working toward a new treaty that would ensure the private sector is held accountable for human rights violations.
In June 2014, the Human Rights Council established an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises to monitor and regulate the private sector’s business activities.
The goal of this working group has been to establish a binding treaty that holds companies accountable when their work violates international human rights law. Specifically, the proposed treaty underscores the fundamental freedoms afforded to all people — including those operating within a corporation’s supply chain — and outlines legal remedies for corporate victims of human rights abuses.
The UN’s overarching framework also encourages corporations to conduct environmental and social due diligence to prevent their activities from having an adverse effect on human rights.
What’s special about this potential new treaty is its focus on international collaboration between countries, allowing it to guide additional pieces of legislation.
“This direction will likely involve closer collaboration between governments, businesses, civil society, and international organizations to ensure responsible business conduct aligns with established human rights standards,” McShane said. “Together, these trends suggest a continuing shift toward more robust regulations, transparency, accountability, and a greater focus on respecting human rights across the private sector.”
This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.