Written by Giesela Rühl, University of Jena/Humboldt-University of Berlin
Note: This blogpost is part of a series on „Corporate social responsibility and international law“ that presents the main findings of all contributions published in August Reinisch, Stephan Hobe, Eva-Maria Kieninger & Anne Peters (eds), Unternehmensverantwortung und Internationales Recht, C.F. Müller, 2020.
1. Corporate social responsibility has been the subject of lively debates in private international law for many years. These debates revolve around the question of whether companies domiciled in countries of the Global North can be held liable for human rights violations committed by foreign subsidiaries or suppliers in countries of the Global South (so-called supply chain liability).
2. According to the majority view in the public international law literature, companies are not, at least not directly bound by human rights. Although numerous international law instruments, including the UN’s 2011 Guidelines for Business and Human Rights (Ruggie Principles), also address companies, liability for human rights violations is, therefore, a matter of domestic law.
3. The domestic law applicable to liability for human rights violations must be determined in accordance with the provisions of (European) private international law. Direct recourse to the lex fori, in contrast, is not possible. The legal situation in Europe is, therefore, different from the United States where actions which are brought on the basis of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) are governed by US-American federal (common) law.
4. Claims for human rights violations committed abroad will usually be claims in tort. Under (European) private international law it is, therefore, the law of the place where the damage occurs (Article 4(1) Rome II Regulation) and, hence, foreign law which governs these claims. Exceptions apply only within narrow limits, in particular if domestic laws can be classified as overriding mandatory provisions (Article 16 Rome II Regulation) or if application of foreign law violates the ordre public (Article 26 Rome II Regulation).
5. In addition to tort law, claims for human rights violations may also be based on company law, namely when directors are directly held liable for torts committed by a foreign subsidiary. According to the relevant private international law provisions of the Member States these claims are governed by the law of the (administrative or statutory) seat of the foreign subsidiary. As a consequence, claims in company law are also subject to foreign law.
6. The fact that (European) private international law submits liability for human rights violations to foreign law is very often criticized in the private international law literature. Claiming that foreign law does not sufficiently protect the victims of human rights violations, a number of scholars, therefore, attempt to subject liability claims de lege lata to the domestic law of the (European) parent or buyer company.
7. These attempts, however, raise a number of concerns: first, under traditional (European) private international law, substantive law considerations do not inform the determination of the applicable law. Second, the wish to apply the domestic law of a European country is mostly driven by the wish to avoid poorly functioning court systems and lower regulatory standards in countries of the Global South. Neither of these aspects, however, has anything to do with the applicable tort or company law. Regulatory standards, for example, are part of public law and, therefore, excluded from the reach of private international law. Finally, the assumption that the domestic law of the (European) parent or buyer company provides more or better protection to the victims of human rights violations does not hold true de lege lata. Since parent and buyer companies are legally independent from their foreign subsidiaries and suppliers, parent and buyer companies are only in exceptional cases liable to the victims of human rights violations committed abroad by their foreign subsidiaries or suppliers (legal entity principle or principle of entity liability).
8. The difficulties to hold (European) parent and buyer companies de lege lata liable for human rights violations committed by their foreign subsidiaries or suppliers raises the question of whether domestic laws should be reformed and their application ensured via the rules of private international law? Should domestic legislatures, for example, introduce an internationally mandatory human rights due diligence obligation and hold companies liable for violations? Proposals to this end are currently discussed in Germany and in Switzerland. In France, in contrast, they are already a reality. Here, the Law on the monitoring obligations of parent and buyer companies (Loi de vigilance) of 2017 imposes human rights due diligence obligations on bigger French companies and allows victims to sue for damages under the French Civil Code. The situation is similar in England. According to a Supreme Court decision of 2019 English parent companies may, under certain conditions, be held accountable for human rights violations committed by their foreign subsidiaries.
9. The introduction of an internationally mandatory human rights due diligence obligation at the level of national law certainly holds a number of advantages. In particular, it may encourage companies to take measures to prevent human rights violations through their foreign subsidiaries and suppliers. However, it is all but clear whether, under the conditions of globalization, any such obligation will actually contribute to improving the human rights situation in the countries of the Global South. This is because it will induce at least some companies to take strategic measures to avoid the costs associated with compliance. In addition, it will give a competitive advantage to companies which are domiciled in countries that do not impose comparable obligations on their companies.
10. Any human rights due diligence obligations should, therefore, not (only) be established at the national level, but also at the European or – even better – at the international level. In addition, accompanying measures should ensure that the same rules of play apply to all companies operating in the same market. And, finally, it should be clearly communicated that all these measures will increase prices for many products sold in Europe. In an open debate it will then have to be determined how much the Global North is willing to invest in better protection of human rights in the Global South.
Full (German) version: Giesela Rühl, Unternehmensverantwortung und (Internationales) Privatrecht, in: August Reinisch, Stephan Hobe, Eva-Maria Kieninger & Anne Peters (eds), Unternehmensverantwortung und Internationales Recht, C.F. Müller, 2020, pp. 89 et seq.