Off the hook? How business lobbies against liability for human rights and environmental abuses
June 17th, 2021
by Corporate Europe Observatory, ECCJ and Friends of the Earth Europe

Corporate lobbyists are fighting a proposed EU law that seeks to hold companies accountable for human rights abuses and environmental destruction. While some employ outright hostility and are clear that they don’t want the law in the first place, more insidious are those companies that while appearing cooperative, seek to fatally weaken the rules.

We reveal the tactics used to undermine this law that seeks to stop corporate impunity and would require companies to exercise ‘due diligence’ along their global supply chains.

Whether it’s deforestation through the use of palm oil, child labour in cocoa plantations, accelerating climate change from industrial processes, or abusive working conditions of textile suppliers to the fashion industry, multinational corporations are responsible for – and profit from – egregious human rights and environmental abuses in their global value chains.

In April 2020, Justice Commissioner Reynders committed to an EU legislative initiative which will require European companies to comply with mandatory human rights and environmental ‘due diligence’.

EU mandatory due diligence legislation could drastically improve the environmental and human rights impacts of EU-based corporations across the world, and provide strong tools for victims of abuses to hold them accountable.

There are plenty of big business lobbies that make no secret of their wish to obstruct the law, but these are perhaps less dangerous than those that present themselves as allies whilst at the same time lobbying to weaken and shape this proposal in their own interests.

Despite lip service in support of a mandatory due diligence law, then, many corporations and their lobby groups seek to make it toothless by restricting or even banning strong liability provisions and access to courts for victims. Instead they focus on “positive incentives” for companies to do the right thing, and emphasize avoiding a “punitive” approach, ie one with serious consequences for companies involved in human rights violations.

They keep using practical and reasonable-sounding terminology to disguise these efforts: fears of “increased risk of litigation”, “frivolous claims”, and “legal uncertainty” are just different ways of saying they don’t want victims to have the right and the tools to hold them accountable in front of the courts.

Corporate lobbyists’ invocation of ‘pragmatic’ and ‘feasible’ measures are often euphemisms for limiting the due diligence law to ‘tier one’ (ie direct suppliers to a company) in global value chains – which would leave most harms unabated, and the most vulnerable without recourse.

Meanwhile, calls to ‘level the playing field’ too often are geared towards the lowest possible level: French industry wants it lower than France’s national due diligence law, while in Germany and the Netherlands, big business’ goal has been to play a double game by scuppering ambitious national legislation by arguing for European rules, then fighting to weaken and undermine those too.