In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.
Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.
However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.
ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.
In the Mercedes Benz case ECCHR is assisting relatives of trade unionists who disappeared from a Mercedes Benz plant in Buenos Aires. A senior manager at the company stands accused of involvement in the disappearances and murders of trade union activists carried out by Argentine security forces.
In 2011, ECCHR submitted an amicus curiae brief in the criminal investigation examining sugar company Ledesma's liability for human rights violations during the Argentine military dictatorship.
In 2012, ECCHR submitted a legal brief in the case relating to the unlawful detention and torture of workers of the company Minera Aguilar S.A. during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983).
Mercedes Benz in Argentina, Volkswagen in Brazil. Economic players, including multinational automobile companies, were beneficiaries of the military dictatorships in Latin America. A number of cases also point to complicity in the arrest and torture of trade unionists.
In January 2019, a dam burst at an iron ore mine near the small Brazilian town of Brumadinho, killing 272 people. Toxic sludge contaminated large sections of the Paraopeba River, poisoning the drinking water of thousands of people. Only four months earlier, the Brazilian subsidiary of German certifier TÜV SÜD confirmed the dam's safety, despite known safety risks.
In 2013, ECCHR submitted a criminal complaint against a German manager of timber company Danzer Group. He is accused of aiding and abetting, through omission, the crimes of rape, grievous bodily harm, false imprisonment and arson in the DR Congo.
Research & Academia
In March 2017, ECCHR organized an expert workshop at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Together with professors, emergent legal researchers and practitioners discussed questions of corporate liability for human rights abuses abroad. A result of the workshop was the volume "Die Durchsetzung menschenrechtlicher Sorgfaltspflichten von Unternehmen" (Nomos).
In October 2016, an airstrike – alleged to have been carried out by the Saudi-led military coalition – struck a civilian home in the village of Deir Al-Hajari in northwest Yemen. The intentional directing of attacks against the civilian population amounts to war crimes. ECCHR is taking legal action against this.
Despite countless attacks on civilian homes, markets, hospitals and schools – conducted by the Saudi/UAE-led military coalition – transnational companies based in Europe continued and continue to supply Saudi Arabia and the UAE with weapons, ammunition and logistical support. European government officials authorized the exports by granting licenses.
In a comprehensive study, ECCHR has examined whether European companies through their transnational operations cause or contribute to forced labor or other labor abuses along their supply chains and whether they can be held to account. The result of this work is reflected in the report "Accountability for forced labor in a globalized economy".
ECCHR filed a criminal complaint against Nestlé and some of its top managers in 2012. The complaint accuses the managers of being in breach of their obligations by failing to prevent crimes of Colombian paramilitary groups and failing to adequately protect trade unionists from these crimes.
ECCHR supports claimants in a case of corporate crime in front of the US Supreme Court. The proceedings are a continuation of the high-profile case taken against Shell. The claimants argue that Shell, through its Nigerian subsidiary, aided and abetted crimes, including torture and extra-judicial executions.
Transnational corporations' responsibilities also extend to the working conditions in their subsidiary and supplier companies abroad. This position is supported by survivors and relatives of victims of the fatal fire at the Ali Enterprises textile factory in Karachi. Together with ECCHR, they filed a legal action for compensation against KiK.
Mining projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America often give rise to environmental problems and social conflict. Local communities near the Tintaya Antapaccay mine in Peru have raised concerns about heavy metals polluting the water and associated health problems. The mine is run by a Glencore subsidiary.
Local residents of the Romanian region of Roșia Montană successfully opposed the building of a gold mine. Now, mining company Gabriel Resources is suing the Romanian state. ECCHR and its partner organizations have filed an amicus petition and are supporting the community so that their rights continue to be taken into consideration.
ECCHR is supporting the lawsuit filed by South African victims of the apartheid regime against eight European and US corporations (among them Daimbler and Rheinmetall). The plaintiffs accuse the companies of either directly committing human rights violations in South Africa, or of facilitating and supporting state-sponsored human rights violations.
In 2010, those affected by the construction of the Merowe dam in North Sudan filed criminal complaints against Lahmeyer employees. The German company played a major role in the construction. Over 4,700 families lost their belongings and their means of subsistence.
Eleven former Syrian employees of French company Lafarge submitted a criminal complaint against Lafarge. By having business relations with the terrorist group ISIS in Syria, the company may have taken part in the financing of the group, being therefore complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Uzbekistan is considered one of today's most repressive regimes in the world. ECCHR has been engaged in various proceedings to demand that the political and economical interests of Western actors do not further undermine human rights in Uzbekistan.
Since the 1970s, the Western Sahara region has been militarily occupied by Morocco. Morocco thus violates the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Since 2018, ECCHR has been investigating if Germany is complying with its international obligations concerning the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination.