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PhD THESIS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW
12 May 2022

Home state remedies for corporate human rights abuses committed abroad

Do home states of transnational corporations have an obligation to provide a remedy for victims whose rights have been infringed by overseas operations of these corporations? And how do recent domestic legislative and judicial responses to various legal barriers, such as the issue of jurisdiction and parent company liability, impact victims’ access to home state remedies? Wubeshet Tiruneh addresses these two questions in his PhD thesis and suggests recommendations on how states could facilitate victims’ access to their respective judicial remedies.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

The plight of the Ogoni people in Nigeria due to oil extraction by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria and their struggle to access to remedy, which I first learned about as part of the African Human Rights law course, inspired me to read and research more on business and human rights. And this reading and research has in turn led me to closely follow their and other similar victims’ attempt to seek and obtain remedy in different home states of corporations. Because of this fascination with the subject, I have, therefore, chosen to conduct my PhD research regarding home state remedies for corporate human rights abuses committed abroad in developing countries.

What were your research questions and what methodology did you use to approach those questions?

The thesis attempted to answer two questions concerning victims’ access to home state remedies. First, it systematically assessed whether home states of transnational corporations (TNCs) have an obligation to provide a remedy for victims whose rights have been infringed by overseas operations of their TNCs. Second, it comparatively explored recent domestic legislative and judicial responses to various legal barriers, and their impact on victims’ access to home state remedies.

In answering the research questions, I employed both doctrinal and comparative research approaches. In the first part of the thesis – aimed at finding relevant pieces of information regarding the obligation of home states or the absence thereof – I employed doctrinal research technique. This involved thoroughly analysing relevant international human rights instruments, soft law documents, jurisprudence of the UN and regional treaty bodies, and the practice of special procedures, particularly the Working Group on Business and Human Rights. 

The second part of the thesis, which deals with recent legislative and judicial developments in home states and their bearing on victims’ access to remedy, took a comparative approach. On the issues of jurisdiction, the thesis comparatively discussed the UK, Canada and US experiences by particularly relying on relevant cases and respective private international rules on jurisdiction.  Concerning parent company liability, the thesis comparatively explored emerging judicial and legislative developments, aiming at overcoming the corporate veil challenge. It discussed the French law on duty of vigilance, the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, and judicial precedents of the common law duty of care, mainly English and Canada case laws.

What are your major findings?

One of the major findings of my PhD research is that, in the current state of international human rights law, home states are required – not merely permitted – to provide remedy for human rights abuses committed abroad by corporations domiciled or incorporated within their territory. The practice of human rights treaty bodies shows that the “permitted, but not required” policy-based approach of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights no longer reflects the current state of international human rights law. In short, the thesis concluded that there is a strong and growing recognition of the obligation of home states in the current state of international human rights law.

However, this increasing recognition of the obligation of home states at the international level is not adequately implemented in practice at the domestic level. Home states are neither putting in place necessary legal frameworks to improve victims’ access to civil remedies nor are they prosecuting and sanctioning corporations for their serious human rights abuses. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, there are commendable legislative and judicial developments that improve victims’ access to home state remedies. However, in other jurisdictions, jurisdictional hurdles and the principle of limited liability continue to prevent claims from being brought before the courts of home states or leave victims without remedy even after long litigations. 

Can your findings help victims overcome barriers to accessing remedy

Currently, states are adopting mandatory due diligence laws concerning the impacts of corporate activities on human rights which, among others, allow victims to seek and obtain remedies for corporate human rights abuses, including those committed abroad in developing countries. In this regard, my thesis identified the most insurmountable legal barriers that victims face in different jurisdictions and suggested various recommendations on how states should reduce these barriers and facilitate victims’ access to their respective judicial remedies. 

What are you doing now?

I am currently working as a legal assistant to Sir Robert Martin, who is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. My plan for the future is to work in the academia to expand, publish and disseminate my research findings. 

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On 5 November 2021, Wubeshet Tiruneh defended his PhD thesis on “Providing a Remedy for Corporate Human Rights Abuses Committed Abroad: The Scope and Implementation of the Obligations of Home States”. The jury members were Professor Zachary Douglas (chair and internal examiner), Professor Andrew Clapham (supervisor) and Professor Sigrun Skogly (external examiner). 

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Tiruney at wubeshet.tiruneh@graduateinstitute.ch.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Tiruneh,Wubeshet. “Providing a Remedy for Corporate Human Rights Abuses Committed Abroad: The Scope and Implementation of the Obligations of Home States.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by petrmalinak/Shutterstock.com.