human rights & business (and a few other things)
Currently Browsing: Human Rights

The German Football Federation’s Human Rights Policy – A First of its Kind


It is a pleasure welcome back Dr Daniela Heerdt (@DanielaHeerdt) to Rights as Usual. Dr Heerdt recently defended her PhD on responsibilities for human rights abuses at mega-sporting events. She has a background in public international law and human rights law. Next to being a researcher and teacher at Tilburg University, she works as independent consultant on sport and human rights for the Centre for Sport and Human Rights among others. This post is hers.


On the 23rd of April 2021,the German football federation “Deutscher Fußball-Bund” (DFB) published its human rights policy. This is a significant step, first because the DFB is the first national football federation to take this step. It is also in line with a number of recommendations made by John Ruggie in its report on FIFA’s human rights responsibilities regarding how FIFA’s efforts should translate to its member associations. Moreover, the German federation is a well-respected and -resourced football federation that can set an example for other national football federations to follow.

This blog post summarizes and analyses the key elements of the newly adopted policy, compares it to FIFA’s human rights policy, and reflects on how DFB’s statement on the Qatar World Cup, which accompanied the publication of the policy, aligns with DFB’s human rights commitments. Some conclusions are drawn to evaluate the policy more broadly in the context of current developments in sport and human rights and on lessons to be learned for other football federations that want to follow suit.

Policy Statement

The adoption of a human rights policy presents an important step in DFB’s ongoing efforts to embed human rights. This journey started in 2017, when the DFB was bidding for the UEFA EURO 2024. In 2019, the DFB adopted a statutory commitment to respect all internationally recognized human rights. These steps are reiterated in the introductory part of the policy, which also reflects more broadly on DFB’s societal impact and football’s potential to contribute positively to societal development.

The policy serves as a guide for implementing the statutory human rights commitment and rests on the DFB’s acceptance of a duty of care. It explicitly refers to a number of human rights instruments, namely the UNGPs, the International Bill of Human Rights, and the fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization. In addition, it mentions Germany’s National Action Plan on business and human rights (NAP) as a source of interpretation for what this duty of care and respecting human rights mean (p.4).

After a brief statement in which the DFB condemns any kind of human rights abuse, in particular mentioning violent, discriminatory, or inhuman behaviour, and any harm to a child’s welfare or other vulnerable groups, the policy provides a comprehensive overview of the actors it applies to. This includes all organs, officials, employees, and all companies in which the DFB holds the majority of the shares. Furthermore, it extends to DFB’s business relationships and events organized by the Federation, as well as its member organizations.

Human Rights Due Diligence

The policy defines steps on how to implement the duty of care, which follows closely the due diligence process outlined in the UNGPs and Germany’s NAP (p.5). In total, 10 steps are identified: impact assessment (2.1), risk analysis (2.2), risk mitigation (2.3), influence on third parties (2.4), collaboration, dialogue and effectiveness check (2.5), existing and new structures (2.6), grievance mechanisms, remedy and compensation (2.7), dissemination (2.8), international level (2.9), reporting and learning (2.10). The level of details provided under each step differs. As examples for sources of potential and actual negative human rights impacts, it merely lists activities on and off the pitch and activities related to staging tournaments, inadequate working conditions for DFB’s employees, or DFB’s supply chains. This broad overview is followed by a reference to the annex, which gets more concrete on what the relevant human rights issues are (P.10-13).

Other human rights due diligence steps identified in the policy provide more detail, such as the measures that can be taken to mitigate risks, how to collaborate with relevant partners on implementing the policy, and how to use existing structures to advance the policy, such as using the independent Ethics Commission. However, the statement on grievance mechanisms leaves open the important question of whether the DFB creates its own grievance mechanism or adopts an existing mechanism for cases of negative human rights impacts related to DFB’s operations. In case it does set up its own mechanism, the policy guarantees that stakeholder engagement will take place. Finally, it is remarkable that grassroots level football is explicitly included in the considerations, and that regular reporting is planned within the framework of DFB’s sustainability reports.

Compared to FIFA’s Human Rights Policy

At first glance, the DFB’s human rights policy looks rather similar to the FIFA’s human rights policy adopted in 2017. It follows a similar structure, by first making a general commitment and then explaining the approach. Furthermore, both are clearly linked to the UNGPs and based on a human rights due diligence process. However, the DFB divides this into ten steps, which arguably makes it more thorough than FIFA’s four pillars that follow more closely the four-step structure of human rights due diligence as stipulated in the UNGPs. Another difference is that DFB’s human rights policy is less explicit on what potential and actual human rights risks are when compared to FIFA’s policy. While FIFA lists “salient risks” under its commitment, the DFB refers to concrete examples only in the annex to the policy. There, the potential and actual human rights risks are categorized under discrimination and racism, violence and health risks, risks related to integrity, corruption, or doping, and labour rights risks.

Arguably, the way these risks are addressed in the DFB’s policy appears rather broad and general, and lacks embedding in human rights language and standards. Furthermore, some obvious risks are overlooked, such as human rights risks related to recruitment practices for workers on tournament construction sites. With the upcoming World Cup in Qatar in 2022, this can be considered a significant omission. The fact that DFB’s position on Qatar, which was released together with the policy, does not address this issue either makes it look like a conscious choice. In fact, while the position refers to DFB’s human rights commitments, it does not mention concrete human rights risks related to the Qatar World Cup, nor does it link the risks mentioned in the policy’s annex to the situation in Qatar. Instead, the power of sport to bring about positive change is paramount in the statement. While being clear on their position that a boycott is not a solution, the DFB is less clear on how it contributes to positive changes in Qatar beyond relying on the approach of experts. Given the recent human rights efforts that DFB undertook, it is somewhat surprising that this position is not linked more directly to its human rights policy and statutory commitment to respect human rights.

Lessons to Be Learned

On the one hand, adopting a human rights policy is an important step towards ensuring a world of football, and sports more generally, that fully respects human rights. That the DFB took this step supports the sport and human rights movement, which developed in the past decade. This movement is carried forward by civil society organizations that raise awareness on human rights issues connected to sports and supported by a number of actors within the sport ecosystem, including sponsors and broadcasters. It arguably rests on the understanding that ensuring a harm-free and human rights-compliant sport is a shared responsibility among all the different actors involved, as I have argued in my PhD thesis.

The most important lesson for other football federations should be that it is possible for an organization like a national football federation to adopt such a policy. The DFB shows awareness of useful existing structures and how they need to be reformed to embed human rights into daily practices and policies. Hence, it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel. Furthermore, it is not a lonely journey, and external partners can help. The extensive reference to other organizations and actors, and the way this policy has been shaped demonstrates that the DFB engaged in proper stakeholder consultation. As a result they know that they do not have to do this on their own, but can rely on the support of and collaboration with others.

On the other hand, the policy could have been more directly embedded in human rights standards, by including references to specific provisions in international human rights instruments. In particular, it misses the opportunity to acknowledge the issue of women’s rights abuses related to football, and in particular the issue of gender discrimination in football, which Ruggie identified as “endemic human rights challenge” and “deep-seated pattern” in the world of association football. Furthermore, while being clear on who this policy applies to within the DFB’s organization, it remains rather vague on how the policy will be implemented internally. Therefore, it remains to be seen what effects this policy will have in practice.

In conclusion, the adoption of this policy constitutes an important development for the sports and human rights field. While there is always room for improvement, the fact that the DFB came this far is applaudable. Hopefully DFB’s effort will inspire other football federations.


Implementing the UNGPs in Eastern Europe: Is Ukraine the Example to Follow?


Kharkiv ForumIt is my pleasure to welcome Dr Olena Uvarova to Rights as Usual (@BHRinUkraine). Dr Uvarova is Associate Professor of law, Head of the International Lab on Business and Human Rights (BHR) at Yaroslav Mudriy National Law University in Ukraine. She is the author of the National Baseline Assessment on BHR in Ukraine. In 2017-2020, she coordinated the panel discussions on BHR in Eastern Europe during the Kharkiv Legal Forum. She is the co-founder of the Central and Eastern Europe BHR Association, and a member of the Global BHR Scholars Association. This post is hers.


In Eastern European countries, the level of UNGPs implementation remains extremely low. Among non-EU members, only Georgia adopted a business and human rights (BHR) chapter, in 2018. It is not a stand-alone National Action Plan (NAP). Rather, it is incorporated within its broader human rights NAP ( While three years later experts remain skeptical about Georgia’s progress, the very existence of this chapter shows that BHR issues are on the public agenda in Georgia.

This month (March 2021), Ukraine repeated the experience of Georgia: a  BHR Chapter was adopted as part of the National Human Rights Strategy (

Pre-BHR period in Ukraine

In December 2014, the Ukrainian translation of the UNGPs was presented by the Ministry of foreign affairs of Ukraine. After that, it looked like the document was forgotten by everyone: no public mention, no statement, no action followed both from the state, business or civil society. This can be explained by the fact that the country had other vital concerns. After the revolutionary events of 2013-2014 and the start of the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine, priorities shifted significantly. But this explanation only partially holds. One can also argue that in situations of instability and high risks to human rights, the state obligation to protect and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights actually become more relevant.

In 2017, during the first Kharkiv Legal Forum, a BHR discussion was conducted. This academic event was open to all interested stakeholders, but no state organ, and no business participated. However, during the second Kharkiv Forum in 2018, a Panel discussion on BHR in Ukraine brought together representatives from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Ombudsperson’s Secretariat, the OECD National Contact Point, and the Governmental Commissioner for Gender Equality (

This is my own subjective opinion, which I understand might be perceived as biased, but I believe it is highly important for Ukrainian decision-makers to hear what international organizations and experts in this area have to say. It is crucial to take into account the experience of others, including Western European countries. This is not to say that such experience and opinions are to be received uncritically. However, it is clear that at the second Forum in 2018 the opening greetings from a UN Working group on business and human rights member (Anita Ramasastry), the expert opinion from the Danish Institute for Human Rights (Dirk Hoffmann), and the presentations of the Polish (Beata Faracik), Czech Republic (Jitka Brodska and Alla Tymofeeva) and Lithuanian (Lyra Jakulevičienė) experiences played a decisive role.

In January 2019, the MoJ initiated implementation of the UNGPs in Ukraine (

UNGPs implementation: initial steps

At the beginning of 2019, the National baseline assessment (NBA) on BHR in Ukraine was initiated by the MoJ. It was conducted by Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University (I was the author with the expert support of my colleagues) in cooperation with the Danish Institute for Human Rights (

The NBA was published and presented in June 2019. The idea of the MoJ was that it should serve as a basis and starting point for developing a stand alone NAP on BHR. But after early parliamentary elections in July 2019, the government was dissolved and a new one was formed. Until March 2020, the fate of the BHR NAP remained extremely unclear. In March 2020, the new MoJ’s team announced that an updated National Human Rights Strategy would be developed. It called experts and CSOs to make proposals on how the Strategy should be updated. One of the proposals that was supported by the Ombudsperson’s office and a number of CSOs was to have the BHR chapter.

After several virtual open discussions, the draft was prepared. The MoJ was open to accepting and processing as many proposals, remarks and comments as possible. As a result, in November 2020, the updated National Human Rights Strategy that includes the BHR chapter was ready to be approved and signed by the President of Ukraine. Thus, the whole process of working on the text took about 8 months. Too fast? Maybe.

Then there were 4 months of waiting. Nobody knew exactly when the President would sign the Strategy, or if he would sign it at all. The expectation was compounded by the fact that the New Economic Strategy of Ukraine initiated by the President of Ukraine and presented in January 2021 provides for a ban of any new requirements and restrictions for business. These are red flags. “Business deregulation and removal of any barriers for doing business” are called as key priorities. The Economic Strategy does not contain any reference to human rights.

On March 24, the National Human Rights Strategy was signed. It does include a BHR Chapter. However, a feeling of policy incoherence lingers on.

What’s next?

The National Human Rights Strategy is a very broad document. The BHR chapter (2 pages) names only:

-        General strategic goals: business operations should be based on a human rights approach; effective remedies should be guaranteed for victims of business violations); and

-        Key tasks, namely to implement the UNGPs; to strengthen the capacity of public authorities and local governments to implement the UNGPs in Ukraine; to raise awareness of business entities and their associations, trade unions and other civil society institutions on the UNGPs; to promote the renewal of corporate policies (in particular on labor relations, environmental protection, corporate social responsibility, personal data protection, consumer protection, anticorruption, combating trafficking in human beings, etc.) to ensure compliance with the UNGPs and other international human rights instruments; to provide access to judicial and non-judicial remedies.

Now the Ukrainian government should adopt an action plan for the implementation of the National human rights strategy (the draft of the Plan was developed simultaneously with the Strategy in the same manner). An action plan is more detailed – it names specific actions to be taken, responsible actors and timelines.

Lessons learned

So, I hope that the case of Ukraine will be an example to follow for those countries from the region that initiate the UNGPs implementation. We need more countries to adopt NAPs on BHR. But in this process, the lessons already learned by Ukraine should be taken into account:

  1. Be persistent. Someone (from civil society, academia, business) has to be very persistent in their intentions. It is pointless to wait for the government to take the initiative.
  2. Appeal to experiences of other countries, to the opinions of international organizations, to the expectations of partner states and investors. Unfortunately, often these arguments are more effective for decision-makers than society’s expectations. But this can be used as an advantage.
  3. Implementation’s processes can occur too quickly, to the detriment of the standards of inclusiveness and the depth of the analysis of the problems. This haste is one of the consequences of political instability. Changing the composition of the government can put any initiated process on a long pause.
  4. Be prepared to see some policy incoherence. The concept of business and human rights is considered mostly as a significant obstacle to economic development. Therefore, the main questions to be answered are: will the UNGPs implementation lead to a slowdown in economic development? Will it create additional barriers to business?

Lowering the bar (in a good way): the UK Supreme Court Decision in Okpabi v. Shell


It is a pleasure to welcome back Dr Lucas Roorda as a guest poster on “Rights as Usual”. Dr Roorda (@LRoordaLaw)  is an Assistant Professor and postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University. This post is his.


Parent companies incurring common law duties of care to foreign claimants have gone from a distant hypothetical to a very real possibility. Two weeks ago, the Dutch Court of Appeal was the first court to hold on the merits that RDS, the parent company of the Shell group, incurred a duty of care to farmers in the Niger Delta. Now the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) has ruled in the case of Okpabi v. Shell that it is at least arguable that RDS had a duty of care towards the inhabitants of the Ogale and Bille communities, confirming its decision in Vedanta v. Lungowe, and allowing their case to proceed in English courts. In this blog I discuss the UKSC’s decision and its implications, and compare it to the Dutch Court of Appeals decision.

The background

I have discussed Okpabi case here and here, so I’ll refer to those blog posts for more detailed discussions of the facts and the lower courts’ decisions. The claims concern significant oil pollution in the Niger Delta, allegedly caused by Shell’s negligence in maintaining pipelines and other oil infrastructure – broadly similar to the Milieudefensie case in the Netherlands, discussed here. Also similar to that case is that the claims were jointly filed against Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC, and Anglo-Dutch parent company RDS. The defendants disputed the jurisdiction of English courts, arguing that the Nigerian claimants had no ‘arguable case’ against RDS, to which SPDC could then be a ‘necessary and proper party’. The defendants argued that the claimants’ claim that RDS had incurred a duty of care, pursuant to Caparo v. Dickman and Chandler v. Cape, had no prospect of succeeding, and was filed only as an anchor for the court to assert jurisdiction over subsidiary SPDC. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal sided with the defendants. They held that the Nigerian claimants had insufficiently demonstrated that RDS could have incurred a duty of care and dismissed the case.

The decision of the UK Supreme Court

The UKSC has now reversed the Appeal decision, holding that the claim against RDS contains a sufficiently ‘triable issue’ and remitting the case to the High Court. In a unanimous decision delivered by Lord Hamblen, the Court first reiterates its holding in Vedanta v. Lungowe of last year that parental duties of care are not a distinct category of negligence liability, but instead are to be determined by ordinary principles of tort law (para. 25; see also para. 141-143). Thus, such duties are not governed by the stringent threefold test of Caparo v. Dickman (requiring foreseeable harm; proximity between the parties; and imposing liability is ‘fair, just and reasonable’) but rather by the broader guidance of Vedanta (note that the Dutch Court of Appeal also got this wrong, relying primarily on Caparo). The Court emphasizes that this guidance does not itself create new, distinct categories of liability but should be read as non-limitative and indicatory of the range of circumstances under which a duty of care can arise.

The bulk of the judgment concerns the Court’s assessment of the way the Court of Appeal assessed the level of control allegedly exercised by RDS. The Court had already noted in Vedanta that it would be inappropriate for courts to engage in ‘mini-trials’ in response to a challenge to jurisdiction over a foreign defendant. In Okpabi however, not only did the Court of Appeal fail to determine that the High Court’s ‘findings’ in fact constituted a mini-trial (paras. 110-111), but in reviewing those findings it engaged in a mini-trial of its own (para. 112). The Court of Appeal made several (inappropriate) determinations regarding the witness statements, factual evidence and documentation presented before concluding that no viable argument could be made that RDS had sufficient control over SPDC and incurred a duty of care.

On the documentary evidence specifically, the UKSC is highly critical of the Court of Appeal’s approach. The Court of Appeal had been wrong to scrutinize the documentary evidence to this degree, before the appellants had access to internal company documents through disclosure (paras 128-129). In fact, the UKSC notes, such documents are crucial to demonstrate operational control over a subsidiary (para. 134), and the appellants had even provided some they obtained through third parties (including audit reports submitted in the Dutch case). Rather than dismissing the case, the Court of Appeals should have concluded that the well-argued existence of such documents was sufficient to let the claimants move on to disclosure, and to be able to further substantiate their claims. Already for that reason, the Court overturns the Court of Appeal’s decision.

The Court further reiterates that the Caparo test was the inappropriate test for determining whether RDS could incur a duty of care. It also notes that the Court of Appeal focused too much of the issue of ‘control’ over the subsidiary and its entire operations; instead, a duty of care could result from various ways in which a parent company is involved in the management of the harmful activities (para. 147). This could be through active intervention, but equally as a result of flawed group-wide policies, or even when a parent company holds itself out to third parties to exercise control over its subsidiaries, but then failed to do so. With that in mind, the Court concludes that the appellants had indeed raised a ‘real issue to be tried’ as to whether RDS incurred a duty of care.

Analysis: the only reasonable outcome

From my perspective, this seems to be the only reasonable outcome. As I noted in my blog on that decision, the Court of Appeals had set the evidentiary bar for an arguable case that a duty of care existed so high that one could better speak of the claimants requiring a ‘winnable’ case; both with regard to the stringent test for a duty of care, and with regard to the evidence required to even present an arguable case. The Supreme Court now lowers the bar to a much more attainable level, preventing lengthy ‘mini-trials’ that drain time and resources of the parties as well as the courts seized, and providing victims with easier access to internal company documents. As noted by Ekaterina Aristova and Carlos Lopez in their excellent blog on the Okpabi judgment, the Court thereby takes an approach more in line with international jurisprudence: claimants can rely on publicly available documents to raise a legitimate issue on the level of control a parent company could exercise, and substantiate whether that indeed occurred in this case after disclosure. This is also the approach suggested by Sales LJ in his dissenting judgment, which I advocated for in my blog, and which is now explicitly endorsed by the Supreme Court (para. 155).

Whilst these holdings could already have a significant impact on future litigation, it is the Court’s confirmation of Vedanta regarding the circumstances under which a parent company can have a duty of care that is likely to spark more litigation. Most litigation of this type revolved around the Caparo test, modified by Chandler v. Cape regarding proximity – including, as noted, erroneously by the Dutch Court of Appeals in Milieudefensie v. Shell. Quite predictably, such litigation has yielded few results for claimants. The Court now confirms that a much broader range of circumstances and activities can create a duty of care, which makes it both easier to argue and adaptable to circumstances of different cases. Moreover, there is no principled reason to assume that a company purporting to exercise oversight over foreign contractors, and being in a position to do so in practice, could not also incur a duty of care with regard to harmful activities by that contractor, even if there is no formal control or ownership. It is regrettable that this holding came only after the Dutch Court of Appeals decision, which still relied on the Caparo test, despite the court referring to Vedanta as well.

Jurisdiction questions remain

We should be mindful of the limitations of this holding. The decision explicitly mentions that after remitting, other jurisdictional issues may still have to be dealt with by the High Court as they were not part of these proceedings. Amongst other issues, this includes Shell’s objections to an English court asserting jurisdiction over its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC. On this issue, Vedanta may actually aid the defendants more than the claimants. As I discussed here and here, the Supreme Court ruled that the risk of irreconcilable decisions no longer automatically means that cases against foreign co-defendants need to be litigated together with the main defendant (stating that it is no longer a ‘trump card’). In Vedanta, the risk of not getting substantive justice in Zambia however meant that the case had to continue in English courts.

This application of the forum non conveniens test may lead to a different outcome in Okpabi. Jurisdictionally, the situation is similar to Vedanta: the claimants themselves create the risk of parallel proceedings and irreconcilable judgments by electing to bring their case in English courts, whereas they could have litigated against both defendants in Nigerian courts. The claimants will thus have to show that no substantive justice is possible in Nigerian courts, which Shell disputes; in that respect, it can point to a number of recent decisions by Nigerian courts in favour of local communities and against Shell, to argue that prospects for the litigants there are much better than they would have been in Zambia for the Vedanta litigants. There would be a profound irony in this argumentation: not only has Shell repeatedly ignored rulings of Nigerian courts, but it also recently instituted investor-state arbitration proceedings against Nigeria, on the grounds that recent proceedings against the company had been unfairly conducted. So in essence, Shell’s argument is that Nigerian courts are good enough to litigate complex pollution cases, up until the point where the company loses.


Last month’s decision in the Milieudefensie case and the Supreme Court’s decision in Okpabi constitute major steps in ensuring that duties of care on parent companies can be plausibly argued before home state courts. Both the more realistic level of scrutiny a court should apply to such claims and the broadened scope of actions that can lead to a duty of care may mean that future claims arguing parent company liability become much more viable. Of course, the jurisdiction question still hangs over such cases, especially since the UK is no longer subject to the Brussels-I Regulation and forum non conveniens can be applied to claims against UK-domiciled parent companies.

Wading through the (polluted) mud: the Hague Court of Appeals rules on Shell in Nigeria


It is a pleasure to welcome back Dr Lucas Roorda as a guest poster on “Rights as Usual”. Dr Roorda (@LRoordaLaw)  is an Assistant Professor and postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University. This post is his.


On 29 January, the Court of Appeals (Gerechtshof) of The Hague delivered its judgments in the case of Four Nigerian Farmers and Milieudefensie v. Shell. These judgments are of seminal importance for improving accountability of transnationally operating businesses for violations of human and environmental rights. This is because it is the first appeals case in Europe that resulted in a victory on the merits for the victims, but also the first case to hold that a parent company was under a duty of care with regard to foreign claimants. In this blog, I will summarize the judgment, address some key points and analyse its potential impact on future litigation.

Preliminary notes

The three judgments are over 150 pages, which is exceptionally long by Dutch standards. Here I focus on the merits of the case and have skipped the jurisdictional questions, discussed here and elsewhere on this blog. I have also not extensively examined the (failed) challenges of the defendant to various claimants’ standing, or Shell’s argument on the purported exclusivity of the Oil Pipelines Act (OPA). Lastly, I have limited discussion about the evidence provided by the parties, although to a large extent this case is about factual findings of the court.

Factual background and case history

The case concerns three separate incidents of oil spills in the Niger Delta, and the court delivered three separate but partially overlapping judgments. The first (‘Cases A and B’) concerns an oil spill from an underground pipeline near Oruma in 2005; the second (‘Cases C and D’) concerns an oil spill from an underground pipeline near Goi in 2004; the third (‘Cases E and F’) concerns an oil spill from a wellhead near Ikot Ada Udo. These spills caused severe damage to local farmlands and fishing grounds. The claimants were Nigerian (fish) farmers, who held both Shell Nigeria (SPDC) and its parent company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) liable for negligent maintenance of the pipelines and wellhead, inadequate response to the spills and insufficient clean-up, thereby causing that damage. They were supported in their claims by Dutch NGO Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands).

The District Court of the Hague in 2013 initially only upheld one claim from Cases E and F, that of Friday Alfred Akpan (discussed here). It dismissed all other claims, accepting Shell’s defence that the respective spills were likely caused by sabotage, and rejecting liability of parent company RDS. After first issuing several interlocutory decisions, most importantly on jurisdiction and applicable law in 2015, the Court of Appeal has now reversed the holdings of the District Court. On 29 January 2021, it held SPDC liable for damage caused by oil spills in Cases A to D and ordered payment of damages to the claimants, the amount to be determined in a separate hearing (schadestaatprocedure). It also orders both SPDC and RDS to install a leak detection system (LDS) in the pipeline central to Cases A and B. In Cases E and F, the court issues an interlocutory decision ruling that these spills were caused by sabotage, but requests additional information from the parties on the extent of the damage and subsequent clean-up actions. In the remainder of this post, I will only discuss Cases A to D, the oil spills in Oruma and Goi.

Liability of SPDC

As per its 2015 interlocutory decision, the court applies Nigerian law to the case’s substantive questions. The claimants had primarily argued their case on the basis of the federal OAP, which outlines obligations for operators of oil infrastructure; and on common law torts, specifically the torts of negligence, nuisance and trespass to chattel. To determine the liability of SPDC for both spills, the court looks primarily at the OPA, SPDC being the operator of the pipelines in the sense of the OPA.

First, the court examines liability for causing the oil spills. It considers that art. 11(5)(c) OPA imposes a strict liability standard for operators of oil pipelines. The operator can be exempt from liability in cases of sabotage, which Shell argued was the most likely cause of the spills in Oruma and Goi. The court however holds that under Nigerian law sabotage should be proven beyond reasonable doubt, as was argued by the claimants. While the court notes that the available expert reports indeed suggested that sabotage was a likely cause of the spills, it holds that this does not meet the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It thus concludes that SPDC could not evade the strict liability standard of art. 11(5)(c) OPA, and that it is liable for damages arising out of the spills. The court does not consider it necessary to examine liability for any of the common law torts. It considers obiter that in either case it would likely not have found SPDC liable on this basis, given that sabotage was still a likely cause of the spill.

Second, regarding Shell’s response to the oil spills, the court notes that art. 11(5)(c) of the OPA is not applicable and that the claims regarding the response should be assessed in light of common law torts, specifically negligence. In both cases (A and B; and C and D), the court finds that SPDC owed a duty of care to the claimants, and acted negligently in its response to the spills. In the case of the Oruma spill, SPDC was aware of the risk of spills and potential problems with on-site inspection following a suspected spill, yet neglected to install a ‘Leak Detection System’ or take other sufficient measures. This would have allowed a more immediate response to leaks and spills, even if access to the site was (temporarily) impossible. In the case of the Goi spill, the court notes that while SPDC did perform an on-site inspection by helicopter to assess the leak, this could have been done at least a day earlier. The court additionally orders that SPDC should install an LDS system in the Oruma pipelines to prevent future spills; it had already done so in the Goi area in 2019.

Lastly, the court discusses the clean-up undertaken by Shell after the spills. Here, the court finds that while there was still some pollution in both regions, the duty of care Shell had to ensure adequate clean-up did not extend beyond the actions it had already undertaken, as assessed by applicable industry standards. The court also dismisses the claimants’ arguments that the remaining pollution constituted a violation of the farmers’ right to a clean environment, leaving aside whether such a right could be horizontally invoked under Nigerian law.

Liability of RDS

The court examines whether Royal Dutch Shell, parent company of the Shell group, is also liable for the oil spills. Such liability can be based on English precedent, which the court notes has persuasive authority in Nigeria’s common law system. The question is then whether the parent company also owed a duty of care to the claimants. A duty of care can be incurred if the company is in sufficient proximity to the claimants, for example by intervening in its subsidiary’s operations, and if imposing that duty is ‘fair, just and reasonable’. As the court notes, the UK Supreme Court confirmed in Vedanta v. Lungowe that parent companies can owe a duty of care to persons affected by harmful activities of foreign subsidiaries.

The claimants had argued that RDS, through its position in the Shell group and interventions with its Nigerian subsidiary, had incurred a duty of care, but the court dismisses this argument with regard to causing the spills. It notes that for a parent to incur a duty of care, the subsidiary must have acted wrongfully. However, as seen above, the court did not find that SPDC had acted wrongfully. Instead, it found that SPDC incurs strict liability as an operator under the OPA. With regard to the response to the spill, the court does find a limited duty of care. Based on internal documents, bonus policies and a witness statement, the court concludes that after 2010 RDS was actively trying to limit the amount of oil spills in SPDC’s operations, amongst other things by installing Leak Detection Systems (LDS) in its pipelines. The court thus finds that with respect to the installation of an LDS in the Oruma pipeline, where it had not been installed at the time of the proceedings, RDS had a duty of care to the claimants. It orders Shell to insure it is installed within a year.

Small steps, giant leaps

The Court of Appeals’ judgment is a monumental victory for the victims and their communities, and by extension for Milieudefensie. The court found in their favour on two of the three central issues after over a decade of litigation and uncertainty, although the finding that Shell conducted adequate clean-up after the spills must be disappointing. Whether this will actually result in an award that is sufficient to cover the personal and economic losses incurred both directly after the spills and in the decade since then remains to be seen, but it certainly appears that the award will be more than symbolic. Not that this case is devoid of symbolism: it is the first foreign direct liability case to result in an enforceable decision on the merits, in favour of the claimants. All comparable cases have either been dismissed, settled or are still being litigated. That alone signifies how impactful this case may be, and what a big leap it is towards more corporate accountability.

Moreover, this case is the first case where a parent company was found to owe a common law duty of care to claimants residing in a third state, specifically local communities affected by its subsidiary’s operations. English courts had contemplated this possibility in Connelly v. RTZ and Lubbe v. Cape, and the UK Supreme Court confirmed this in Vedanta v. Lungowe. Until this case, however, no court had concluded on the merits that a parent company was in sufficient proximity to its employees or local communities to incur such a duty. This holding thus staves off the fears that transnational corporate duties of care are a mere hypothetical, theoretically possible but never actually occurring in the real world. In my view, this is potentially the most lasting aspect of the case.

While of course enormously important to the victims, the court’s findings regarding SPDC’s liability are of limited legal relevance to other ongoing and future cases. These findings mostly concern the particular rules (the OPA) and facts (Shell’s actions regarding the spills) of this case. This is not a point of criticism: in a case as complicated and contentious as this one, it is sensible for the court to keep its ruling (if not its word count) relatively narrow. It does mean that in a different case, say in a different country with different local laws, concerning a different industry with different operational policies, or concerning even slightly different facts, the outcome may be completely different to this case.

Even the court’s finding of a parental duty of care, while significant, should be approached with some caution. It is of course only relevant for cases where the applicable law is the common law and English precedent can be applied. The way the court then applies that precedent is arguably problematic, specifically where it sides with Shell in holding that the subsidiary must itself have committed a tort before the parent can incur a duty of care. This does not follow directly from the English cases cited by the court, nor does the court clarify why finding that SPDC was subject to strict liability with regard to oil spills precludes a duty of care for RDS. Where it does find a duty of care, that finding stems from RDS’ specific interventions in SPDC’s operations after 2010, rather than from its central position of authority in the corporate group. I have argued on this blog before that finding a duty of care based on actual interventions of the parent, rather than its capacity to intervene, could create an incentive for parent companies not to interfere with their foreign subsidiaries (or only very generally), as this could potentially lead to liability later.

Separately, it must be noted that the proceedings took so long – 16 years since the first spill, 11 years since the litigation started – that several initial claimants passed away before this decision was issued, and litigation was continued by their next of kin. Part of this duration is inherent to the complexity of this case, part of this is arguably due to Shell dragging out the litigation, by arguing procedural points and being slow to produce internal documents requested by the claimants. It is of course fully within Shell’s rights to litigate potentially far-reaching issues like jurisdiction, and the court itself also requested a significant amount of additional evidence to be produced. What is certain is that the length of procedures like this disproportionately works to the detriment of individual claimants, as is painfully demonstrated by this case.


This decision takes a notable step towards more corporate accountability for human rights and environmental impacts. It was rightly celebrated, not just by the victims in this procedure who waited 13 years for a proper remedy, but also in the wider communities of the Niger Delta. As I pointed out in this blog, several significant legal and practical questions remain, from the availability of information necessary to viably argue a case to the precise extent of parental duties of care. But this outcome may well bolster other victims to bring their cases before home state courts, and push the trend towards more corporate accountability further forward.

The UNGPs and the Future of Business and Human Rights Regulation – Interdisciplinary Workshop at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg


It is a pleasure to welcome Dr René Wolfsteller on Rights as Usual. René holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and associated Research Fellow of the Research Cluster “Society and Culture in Motion” at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. His research focuses on the institutionalization of international human rights norms, business and human rights, and national human rights institutions. His work has been published in the Journal of Human Rights, the International Journal of Human Rights, and in Leviathan. This post is his.


On 13 February 2020, I organized an interdisciplinary research workshop at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (Germany). The workshop brought together leading experts in the field of business and human rights from law, politics, ethics and critical accounting studies, to analyze the conceptual foundations and effectiveness of the transnational regulatory regime that has emerged since the endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

Funded by the Forum for the Study of the Global Condition and the Research Cluster Society and Culture in Motion, the workshop yielded three key insights.

(1) The governance potential of the emerging business and human rights regime is far from exhausted.  There continues to be an urgent need for internationally coordinated, enforceable standards.

 (2) The normative foundations of this regime need to be developed further, yet without giving business actors the opportunity to dilute the meaning of human rights norms and standards beyond recognition.

(3) Business and human rights research is complex, and this complexity can only be adequately addressed through the combination of different disciplinary perspectives, as exemplified by the thematic variety of the contributions and the insightful comments of participants.

In my welcome address, I pointed to the potential opening of a new window of opportunity in Europe where leading political actors have expressed an interest in strengthening business and human rights regulation and introducing enforceable safeguards against business-related rights abuse.

Before turning to these empirical issues, the workshop began by discussing the normative and theoretical foundations of the emerging business and human rights regime. Yingru Li and John McKernan (University of Glasgow) opened the first panel with a paper criticizing two major shortcomings in the construction of the UN Guiding Principles from the standpoint of moral philosophy. First, they contended that the UNGPs do not sufficiently allow for the active participation of civil society actors in their further development and implementation. Second, the UNGPs miss what the authors identified as the most fundamental point of human rights, that is, their potential to serve as an instrument for emancipatory struggle. Joining the normative debate, Elke Mack (University of Erfurt) argued in her presentation that the moral legitimacy of the global market economy cannot be derived from mere compliance with human rights law alone. In her view, it is necessary also to underpin economic globalisation with the construction of social contracts between corporate and societal actors on a micro-level, in order to ensure a mutual economic and social benefit based on liberal and cosmopolitan values. In the third contribution to the panel, Christian Scheper (@ChrisSchep, University of Duisburg-Essen) highlighted the risk of empowering business enterprises further as an unintended consequence of their increasing regulation. In fact, the stronger regulation of businesses may contribute, according to Scheper, to companies’ increasing epistemic influence and political power over the knowledge production on business behaviour as the regulatory system relies so heavily on corporate self-reporting and self-measurement.

Following this note of caution, the second workshop panel examined the implementation of corporate human rights accountability and due diligence through different state-based mechanisms. Kelly Kollman and Alvise Favotto (University of Glasgow) presented a study of the effects of the UK National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights on corporate human rights accountability of 50 transnational companies based in Britain. Although their analysis of the companies’ CSR reports from 1995 to 2015 and of original interview data revealed a small increase in the engagement with human rights issues, Kollman and Favotto expressed scepticism on whether substantive progress has been made, especially since the companies’ engagement was largely limited to the level of rhetoric and management. In the following presentation, I examined the potential and the challenges of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in relation to business actors. Pointing out the divergence between the high expectations put on NHRIs and the structural challenges inhibiting these institutions to engage with business actors effectively, I identified the weak mandate under international law and the lack of adequate powers as the two main factors preventing NHRIs from unfolding their full potential.

In the third panel, the discussion turned to the specifically legal challenges in holding businesses accountable for human rights abuses. Analysing international law and legal doctrine, Markus Krajewski (@KrajewskiMarkus, Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg) reconstructed a wide-ranging duty of so-called “home states” to protect individuals from human rights abuses by transnationally operating business enterprises based within their jurisdiction. According to Krajewski, this home state duty extends also to the protection of individuals affected by the operation of the parent company in other countries if the rights abuses were foreseeable and preventable. In the following paper presentation, Başak Bağlayan (@basakbc, University of Luxembourg) analyzed the role of National Contact Points (NCPs) in OECD member states in the realisation of the UNGPs’ second pillar by providing access to remedy. While Bağlayan recognised the potential of NCPs, she argued that the diversity of their form, powers, and funding, as well as of the remedial procedures offered by them, made it difficult to consider these institutions per se an effective mechanism for the provision of access to remedy for victims of business-related rights abuse. Almut Schilling-Vacaflor (University of Osnabrück) concluded the law panel with a paper examining the effectiveness of the French vigilance law of 2017 which imposes relatively extensive due diligence duties on transnational firms based in France. With a case study of the activities of the French-based oil and gas company Total in Bolivia, Schilling-Vacaflor showed that in legal practice it is extraordinarily difficult to enforce this supposedly progressive law effectively under the conditions of globalised production processes because of the high burden of proof and unclear jurisdictional competences of national courts.

The final panel was dedicated to a possible future binding treaty on business and human rights which is being negotiated since 2015 by the Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises With Respect to Human Rights (IGWG) in Geneva. Nadia Bernaz (@NadiaBernaz, Wageningen University) set out the advantages and limitations of different conceptions of corporate accountability for human rights to be adopted by a future treaty. Eventually, Bernaz made the case for a progressive model of corporate accountability which would combine the development of existing principles of international law with state-based enforcement mechanisms. Janne Mende (Justus Liebig University Giessen) closed the workshop with an analysis of the struggle over authority in the treaty negotiations of the IGWG. Based on original interview data and documents, Mende argued that contestations over the authority and legitimacy of actors do not necessarily lead to resistance and crises in the negotiation process but can also pave the way for new hybrid solutions, as illustrated by the recent treaty draft from October 2019.

« Previous Entries Next Entries »

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes