In May 2019, the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights was awarded a grant by the Oak Foundation to undertake a comparative study of civil liability for human rights violations across several jurisdictions in the Global South and Global North (“Project”). The main purpose of the Project is to determine whether and when the law of civil remedies provides a real opportunity to hold states, corporations and individuals accountable for their involvement in three specified categories of human rights violations: (i) assault or unlawful arrest and detention of persons; (ii) environmental pollution; and (iii) harmful or unfair labour conditions. It involves a comparative study of the legal systems of seventeen jurisdictions (“Focus Jurisdictions”). They are Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Ghana, India, Kenya, Netherlands, Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland, Ukraine, UK and US. The study aims to examine the substantive legal rules of the Focus Jurisdictions relevant to determining when a civil claim can be brought in the national courts against state and non-state actors for alleged involvement in the specified abuses.

The focus of the Project is on the civil remedies which could provide compensation to the victims by way of damages, apologies, restitution, as well as address the prevention of harm through, for example, injunctions or guarantees of non-repetition. The scope of the Project is broad, and the research questions fall within four major areas: (i) existing causes of action and elements of civil liability (including liability for omissions and causation); (ii) the bases of liability to hold an actor liable for the acts and omissions of a third party (e.g. vicarious and accessory liability); (iii) liability within complex business structures (e.g. parent company liability and supply chain liability); and (iv) available remedies.

The Project is led by Professor Catherine O’Regan and Dr Annelen Micus at the Bonavero Institute. Dr Ekaterina Aristova coordinates the Project. The Project is guided by a Steering Committee. The members of the Steering Committee are Dr Uglješa Grušić (UCL), Dan Leader (Leigh Day), Professor Robert McCorquodale (Inclusive Law), Dr Annelen Micus (Bonavero Institute of Human Rights), Professor Catherine O’Regan (Bonavero Institute of Human Rights), Dr Miriam Saage-Maaß (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights), Rupert Skilbeck (REDRESS), Lise Smit (British Institute of International and Comparative Law) and Dr Sandy Steel (University of Oxford).

The Project will analyse the operation of the civil liability framework in the Focus Jurisdictions in two principal ways. The first involves a scholarly analysis of the challenges and opportunities for using civil claims as a mechanism for human rights accountability. In October 2020, the Institute will be organising a comparative law research roundtable to discuss (i) the various forms of civil remedy that exist for remedying human rights violations within the legal systems of the Focus Jurisdictions; (ii) the variations in the forms of remedy that exist — and as they are used — between systems; and (iii) the changes that are happening (quite rapidly) within systems. Papers presented at the roundtable will be published as an edited book.

The second avenue is to approach the analysis of the existing civil liability norms and mechanisms in a more ‘practical’ way targeting human rights practitioners worldwide as a principal audience. This stage of the Project involves application of the basic principles of civil liability in the Focus Jurisdictions to the fictitious case scenarios and publication of an online handbook for litigators with the key findings.

In addition to the above, one of the Project’s outcomes is establishment of the Oak Foundation Research Visitor Programme. It aims to provide an opportunity to the Research Visitors from the Global South to contribute to the field by conducting independent research in Oxford and to foster collaboration between human rights scholars and human rights lawyers in practice. To this end, the Bonavero Institute will host five Oak Research Visitors from Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe who will spend three months conducting research on the civil liability for human rights violations in their respective jurisdictions.