On 10 April 2019, the UK Supreme Court held unanimously, in Vedanta Resources PLC and another v Lungowe and others  UKSC 20, that Vedanta Resources, a UK company, arguably owes a duty of care to villagers living in the vicinity of its Zambian subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM). Ruling on a procedural appeal, by upholding the jurisdiction of the UK courts, this landmark judgment allows the claimants, 1826 Zambian villagers, to pursue their case against both the parent and subsidiary companies in the UK. The core legal question, whether a parent company can be held accountable under civil law for human rights violations and environmental harm caused by its foreign subsidiary, is central to the ability of many victims of corporate human rights violations worldwide to access justice. The case provides an example of how public international law principles (such as those on corporate responsibility espoused in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)) can be realised and achieved though domestic civil law.
Readers may be aware that three inter-related pillars underpin the UNGPs: first, the State duty to protect human rights; second, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and third, access to remedy. Relevantly, Guiding Principle 25, in Pillar III, reminds States to “take appropriate steps to ensure” that those affected by business-related human rights abuses within their territory and/or jurisdiction “have access to an effective remedy”. Principle 26 further identifies the need for States to ensure the effectiveness of these remedies, including by removing barriers that can lead to a denial to access to justice.
Two of the intervenors in this case (Corporate Responsibility Coalition Ltd (CORE) and the International Commission of Jurists) wrote a joint submission that sought to support the notion that Vedanta arguably owed a duty of care to the affected communities with reference to international standards and jurisprudence regarding corporate responsibility in relation to human rights and environmental protections. They pointed out that the UK Government explicitly:
“stresses the importance of victims being able to secure access to justice in respect of wrongdoing by UK-based business enterprises both domestically and overseas, and indicates that such persons should have access to remedies through the judicial mechanisms of the UK itself.”
In particular, the Government publication Good Business: Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (through which the UK advocates for the implementation of the UNGPs) notes that civil law claims are one remedial avenue in relation to human rights abuses committed overseas by corporations. The interveners further refer to a number of other international standards that aim to increase corporate accountability for human rights and environmental abuses. Robert McCorquodale, counsel representing the intervention of in the case, notes here of his disappointment that the Court did not refer to these international standards in its decision. But even without explicit reference, this case can surely be viewed as a step towards implementing the UNGPs with respect to access to justice, through its removal of obstacles for redress. The specifics of the court’s consideration of access to justice are canvassed in the sections below. Read the rest of this entry…