Issue 34, March 2020
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Welcome to our Corporate Legal Accountability Quarterly Update -- highlighting a specific topic each quarter, as well as key developments in corporate legal accountability.  The Corporate Legal Accountability hub on our website provides objective, concise information about lawsuits against companies in which human rights abuses are alleged .
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Quarterly highlight
Civil society is key to environmental litigation holding companies to account

Communities and individuals across the globe whose livelihoods and natural resources are harmed or threatened by business operations are using environmental litigation as a key strategic tool to assert their human rights. The past decade has seen a steady increase in lawsuits brought directly against companies to redress climate and other environmental harm. There have been some key wins and setbacks in courtrooms around the world and new drivers of action have emerged. These include shareholders bringing legal claims against the companies or private institutions in which they own shares (so-called shareholder litigation) and civil society organizations taking companies to court over environmental harm or supporting litigation efforts by others.
This blog highlights the crucial role of civil society organizations in environmental litigation, and the various ways they contribute not only to securing specific forms of relief for affected people, but also to shaping resulting jurisprudence, legal doctrine, and company policies and practice. These findings are based on research carried out in a joint project by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Advocates for International Development and the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS).
Bringing Legal Action
Civil society organizations have brought numerous legal actions against companies to seek redress for human rights abuses resulting from environmental harm. For example, the Rio Sonora Basin Committee in Mexico, a community group of 600 local residents, partnered with Latin American human rights organization PODER in 2014 to sue Grupo México over water pollution.
The Committee and PODER filed seven class action lawsuits against Grupo México and the Mexican Government. This was after the company failed to fulfill promises to build water treatment plants, and to finance a trust fund for the community, over a spill of 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulphate into the communal water source. The lawsuits alleged a violation of the right to water, requesting that the defendants redress environmental harm and guarantee the community’s right to participate in spill remediation plans. As a result, the government re-tested dozens of water sources near the river and promised to open a medical clinic to treat any ailments community members experience as a result of the spill. In January 2020, the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the Rio Sonora Trust remain open, a mechanism to help the remediation and clean-up process.
In India in 2013, the Supreme Court revoked the clearance, initially granted to Vedanta Alumina Limited by the Indian Government in 2004, for a mining project in the Niyamgiri hills in the eastern state of Orissa. The mining project would have destroyed the hills on which the local Dongria Kondh tribe relied for their livelihood. After local civil society organizations filed several court petitions against the project, the court acknowledged the harmful environmental impact of the project on the tribe and on wildlife, ruling that the mining project would not proceed.
Funding and Participating in Legal Action
Civil society organizations have also funded or otherwise supported environmental litigation. For example, in 2015 local and international groups financed the lawsuit of a Peruvian farmer against German energy company RWE through crowdfunding. The farmer alleged that the company’s greenhouse gas emissions were contributing to global warming and creating severe flooding risks that acutely threatened his property and livelihood. The plaintiff’s home was located on the flood path of Palcacocha Lake, which had suffered from rising water levels resulting from the melting of the nearby glacier. In 2017 the German court moved into evidentiary procedures, suggesting a willingness to hear the claim.
Moreover, NGOs have submitted amicus briefs with a view to influencing court decisions in environmental cases. One such example is the 2015 lawsuit filed by Indian fishermen and farmers against the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation in US federal court over environmental damage from the Tata Mundra plant in Gujarat, India. When the court ruled that financial institutions were immune from suit, the plaintiffs appealed to the US Supreme Court. In response, nine NGOs filed amicus briefs. In 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that international organizations like the World Bank are not immune from proceedings in US courts and can in fact be sued where established exceptions to immunity apply.
Visibility & Documentation
Efforts by NGOs around the globe to monitor and document corporate environmental harm have generated public attention and proven a key source of evidence and analysis in legal proceedings. In the example of Vedanta mentioned above, the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to revoke the mining clearance came against the backdrop of international advocacy campaigns and research initiatives by human rights organizations such as Survival International and Amnesty International. These informed the decision of several investors, including governments, to divest from the company. For example, in 2007 the Norwegian Government decided to sell its USD 13 million stake in Vedanta, noting “the unacceptable risk of contributing to severe environmental damage…by continuing to invest in the company.”
Another notable example is the lawsuit filed against Shell in the London High Court by the Bodo community in Nigeria. The plaintiffs sought compensation for losses suffered to their health, livelihoods and land, in relation to two oil spills, which occurred in 2008 and 2009 in the Niger Delta. The 15,000 plaintiffs alleged that the pipelines were poorly maintained, and that Shell should have taken action to prevent the spill, requesting that Shell clean up the oil pollution
Various human rights organizations drew international attention to the case and documented the human rights abuses against the community, which later served as evidence in the case. The UK High Court noted it was “entirely accurate” to include a report by Amnesty International as part of the evidence against the defendants. Within one year of bringing suit in the UK High Court, Shell accepted responsibility and agreed to pay GBP 55 million to the community in 2015, a vast increase from the initial offer of £4,000 that Shell made in 2010.
As momentum for litigating environmental harm continues to grow around the globe, so does the role of civil society organizations in bringing, financing and winning legal action.

This blog was co-written by Thomas Istasse of A4ID.
Legal developments

New case profiles

Lawsuits by Socfin (re defamation by Green Scenery, Sierra Leone): Since 2011, Socfin has filed several defamation lawsuits against the NGO Green Scenery in Sierra Leone over articles and reports published by the NGO on the negative human rights impacts of Socfin’s palm oil plantation in Sahn Malen Chiefdom on the local population. The NGO alleges lack of proper consultation regarding the lease obtained by Socfin for its plantation, lack of transparency, and inadequate compensation for property seized by the company.
Lawsuit against Total (re failure to respect French duty of vigilance law in operations in Uganda): In October 2019 six Ugandan and French NGOs filed a lawsuit in France against Total for its alleged failure to elaborate on its mega oil project in Uganda in its vigilance plan. This is the first lawsuit brought under the 2017 French duty of vigilance law. On 30 January 2020, the Nanterre court declared the case did not fall within its jurisdiction and ordered it be sent to the Commercial Court.
Lawsuit by Tourah Cement (re workers’ prison charge for illegal protest, Egypt): In May 2017, 32 workers from Tourah Portland Cement Company, a subsidiary of HeidelbergCement in Egypt were arrested and brought to trial on charges of obstructing justice and using violence to resist authorities following their alleged illegal protest over unpaid wages. In June 2017, the Maadi Misdemeanors Court sentenced the workers to three years in prison. Later that month, a misdemeanour appeals court reduced their sentence to two months.

Updates to existing case profiles

Lawsuit against Globe Metals and Mining (re lack of resettlement & compensation in Malawi): In December 2019, the ongoing mediation process was terminated because an agreement could not be reached regarding the amount of compensation to be paid to the community. The matter will come to trial in 2020.
Lawsuit against Hudbay Minerals (re complicity in rapes in Guatemala): In January 2020, the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario ruled against Hudbay’s motion to block the Guatemalan plaintiffs from amending their complaint. The plaintiffs wanted to include further details of alleged rapes committed by the mining security forces.
Lawsuit against Intl. Finance Corp. (re financing of coal-fired plant in India): In January 2020, the case was heard once again in US District Court, after the Supreme Court ruled last year that the International Finance Corporation (IFC) does not have absolute immunity from suit when it is acting as a market participant. The IFC argued they were not engaged in a commercial activity and therefore are immune from suit. Plaintiffs argued that issuing a loan is a commercial activity and that there is a sufficient connection to the US, because it was approved and managed from IFC’s headquarters in Washington D.C.
Lawsuit against Nestlé, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (re allegations of forced labour in Côte d'Ivoire): In January 2020, the US Supreme Court signalled interest in hearing the case and requested advice from the Trump administration on whether they should grant Nestlé’s petition to hear the case.
Lawsuit against Nevsun Resources (re forced labour at Bisha mine, Eritrea): In February 2020, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Nevsun Resources, a Vancouver-based mining company, can be sued in Canada for alleged human rights abuses, including modern slavery, in relation to its Eritrea-based mining project. The Court held that international human rights law, particularly jus cogens or pre-emptory norms which are so important they are considered universally applicable to all jurisdictions, may apply to this case.
Lawsuits by Thammakaset (re labour exploitation in Thailand): In December 2019, Thammakaset filed a criminal defamation complaint against human rights defender Puttanee Kangkun, of Fortify Rights, in response to 14 tweets and posts on Facebook showing support for other human rights defenders also sued by the company, which could carry a 28-year prison sentence.
In another defamation lawsuit filed by Thammakaset, a court in Thailand sentenced reporter Suchanee Cloitre to two years in prison for criminal libel for a comment she tweeted about a labour abuse grievance at the poultry farm. She will appeal the verdict.
Lawsuit against Vinci (re forced labour in Qatar): On 25 November 2019, a judge opened an investigation into allegations of forced labour following a 2018 complaint by two NGOs and seven ex-workers from India and Nepal.

Other legal news

Seven Tanzanians launch UK legal action against Barrick Gold for human rights abuses by security forces
Wife of deceased worker brings suit in the UK against Maran for ship-breaking exploitation in Bangladesh

Lawsuit against Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft & Tesla filed in the US over forced child labour in cobalt mines in DRC
Brazil: Former Vale CEO charged with homicide for dam collapse, as TÜV SÜD is charged with environmental crimes
New blog posts
Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Araya: What the Canadian Supreme Court decision means in holding Canadian companies accountable for human rights abuses abroad, James Yap, Lawyer, 16 Mar 2020
Reading the Stevia Leaves: Early Clues to Federal Enforcement of the Ban on Imports Made with Forced Labour, Meg Roggensack & Anasuya Syam, Human Trafficking Legal Center, 21 Feb 2020

If you are interested in contributing to a guest post on corporate legal accountability, please contact us. 
Other news

From Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Environmental case commentaries
  • Analysis of litigation strategies and their effects in five key environmental cases, by the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS)
Human rights defenders & business: January 2020 snapshot
  • Almost half of all attacks in 2019 were related to judicial harassment of human rights defenders, including through Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) brought by businesses

Reports, articles & guidance by leading experts & organisations

A UK Failure to prevent mechanism for corporate human rights harms, Peter Hood, Julianne-Hughes, Irene Pietropaoli, & Lisa Smit, British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 11 Feb 2020
Sugar companies sued for forcibly evicting sixty families from their homes in the Dominican Republic, Corporate Accountability Lab, 3 Feb 2020
Toolkit for lawyers at risk, International Bar Association, 24 Jan 2020
Strengthening legal frameworks on business & human rights: The imperative for binding legislation to protect people and the environment, CIDSE, 22 Jan 2020
Embedding business & human rights in Ireland: Legislating for human rights due diligence, Dr. Shane Darcy, 18 Dec 2019,

Shifting gears on human rights performance: from responsive to proactive, The Business and Human Rights Review, Winter 2019, Issue 7, Allen & Overy LLP, Dec 2019
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