Human rights violations committed overseas: European companies liable for subsidiaries

ECCHR Policy Paper, August 2014

ECCHR (ed.)

The cases Danzer, Nestlé and Lahmeyer


Any corporation conducting business activities overseas, whether acting independently or through a subsidiary, must take into account its responsibility for human rights violations. National and European laws on labor, the environment and consumers’ rights provide comprehensive protection for human rights within Europe. Outside of the EU such protection can be lacking. Protection mechanisms are often absent while local authorities may be lax when it comes to enforcing existing laws. In some states trade unions and other organizations face violent oppression. In such countries workers and others affected by corporate crimes have great difficulty enforcing their rights against state authorities and economic powers. Under such circumstances, European corporations – through their subsidiaries – run the risk of violating human rights or indirectly facilitating rights violations by cooperating with authoritarian regimes or paramilitary groups.


Globalization of industry – privatization of labor standards monitoring? Europe and Germany must establish clear standards for addressing human rights risks in the supply chain

ECCHR Policy Paper, August 2014

ECCHR (ed.)

The devastating fires in textile factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan in autumn 2012 and the collapse of a building complex containing a number of garment factories in spring 2013 clearly demonstrates that the production of clothes and other goods for western markets comes at a price, a price many manufacturing workers pay with their health or even their lives. Yet these catastrophes are just the more extreme examples.


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European legal systems are not equipped to deal with human rights violations caused by transnational corporations. It is therefore very difficult to seek legal redress, whether in civil or criminal proceedings. Legal norms and standards are insufficiently applied to TNCs by courts and law enforcement agencies in European countries; their legal systems are failing to address the reality of globalised economic structures. This conclusion follows the analysis of 69 court cases across Europe involving alleged human rights violations by transnational corporations under the direction of Denise Bentele of ECCHR. The 69 lawsuits contained in ECCHR’s European Cases Database’ stem from 46 separate cases. The methodology employed by ECCHR allowed comparative analysis of these cases, despite the jurisdictional and procedural differences among European legal systems.

Prerequisite for the successful use of legal instruments against transnational corporation and board members responsible for human rights violations is both a careful analysis of the legal situation in the affected jurisdictions and a systematic analysis of previous legal practice. Up to now, there were no attempts on the European level to systematically record and evaluate proceedings concerned with human rights violations of corporations with headquarters in Europe. Some databases record proceedings across Europe, but these databases neither record all proceedings, nor do they provide an analysis of the proceedings.

The present study of ECCHR aims to remedy these inadequacies. However, the intention is not to permanently maintain and update this database, but rather to review and analyze previous legal work, with hopes to learn lessons for future cases.

The database is available on request (