Conference Report: "Justice for Transnational Human Rights Violations - At the Crossroads of Litigation, Policy and Scholarship"

Today, the growing importance of transnational issues and actors – climate change, the power of international businesses and corporations, the emergence of non-state actors, migration and human trafficking – has pushed both scholarship and practice in the fields of human rights and transitional justice to think beyond national borders and consider transnational threats to human rights. On 19 and 20 June 2019, the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights, the Latin American Centre and the Oxford Transitional Justice Research (OTJR) Group hosted a conference to consider these issues. Over two days and seven panels, more than 30 academics and practitioners from various disciplines and institutions located around the world gathered in Oxford to discuss “Justice for Transnational Human Rights Violations: At the Crossroads of Litigation, Policy, and Scholarship.”

Day one of the conference began with a panel on “Transitional Justice in a transnational world,” featuring presentations by Diane Marie Amann (University of Georgia), Marcos Zunino (British Institute for International and Comparative Law), and Melanie Klinkner and Howard Davis (University of Bournemouth). The panelists’ presentations highlighted questions of scale in official and unofficial transitional justice systems. Both focusing on official justice systems, Amann discussed transitional justice instruments that transcend national boundaries with transnational prosecutions of international crimes, while Klinkner and Davis’s paper considered the transnational impacts and mechanics of a particular type of human rights violation—forced disappearances. Zunino, meanwhile, looked beyond official transitional justice mechanisms to consider unofficial tribunals for transnational human rights violations as an important and often overlooked tool for “justice beyond the state.”

The second panel of the day turned to the issue of justice for violations of socio-economic and collective rights. The presentations each addressed different aspects of these sets of rights – from transnational drivers of violence against environmental defenders, as discussed by Mary Menton (University of Sussex), to Adam Weiss and Vivien Brassói’s (European Roma Rights Center) evaluation of the usefulness of strategic litigation as a tool for mobilizing and defending a transnational Roma solidarity movement. Adam Kochanski (Stanford University) and John Sturtz (Keene State College) both focused on post-conflict contexts, discussing disability rights in transitional justice and the role of education, respectively.

Day one concluded with a discussion of “Transnational strategies for accountability for human rights violations.” Elizabeth Abi-Mershef’s (Washington College of Law/ Inter-American Commission of Human Rights) reflection on the Inter-American Systems’ role in achieving accountability for transnational human rights violations and Leonie Steinel’s (University of Hamburg) examination of strategic litigation networks as a “rebalancing factor” in the system of international criminal justice highlighted systems and strategies that promote accountability for cross-border harm. Meanwhile, Shane Darcy (Irish Centre for Human Rights) and Cristian González (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights), respectively, challenged the audience to consider where existing systems of justice may fall short in providing justice for victims of aggression, and how universal jurisdiction might be co-opted when using national terrorism laws to sanction international crimes.

Day two of the conference coincided with World Refugee Day, and the morning’s first panel focused on the rights of migrants and refugees. Migrants and refugees, by crossing national borders on their journeys, challenge an international system built on the premise of national sovereignty and jurisdiction. The panelists – Luke Nwimbo (University of Bournemouth), Tomás Pascual (Alberto Hurtado University), and Cécile Bénoliel (Fondation Abbé Pierre) – considered different ways that legislation can enforce international coordination and facilitate responsibility-sharing in order to better protect the human rights of these vulnerable groups. They focused, respectively, on missing migrants, migrants who left their home countries due to poverty, and the progressive restriction of migrants’ housing rights.

The final three panels of the conference turned to issues related to business and human rights. Presenters in the first panel of the series offered more general frameworks to consider the relationship between corporate action and human rights. Nicolas Bueno (University of Zurich), for example, explored the connection between due diligence and corporate liability in transnational matters, asking whether businesses and human rights were destined to become “friends forever.” Meanwhile, Jasmine Elliot (University of Gothenburg) presented a philosophical perspective in her paper with Stuart Neely (Norton Rose Fulbright), discussing the moral responsibility of lawyers acting as gatekeepers or accomplices to businesses in fulfilling the UN Guiding Principles. To conclude, Aintzane Márquez Tejón and Hannah Wilson (Women’s Link Worldwide) applied a gender perspective to business and human rights, using a case study from Spain to evaluate “Access to Justice for Women and Girls Victims of Trafficking for the Purposes of Labour Exploitation.”

The next panel shifted the discussion to focus on transitional justice contexts, with a particular emphasis on Latin American experiences. Lisa Laplante (Center for International Law and Policy, New England Law) drew evidence from truth commissions and investigations from various countries to highlight the various levels of corporate responsibility considered in transitional justice systems, from intentional and reckless perpetrators, active and passive beneficiaries, bystanders, witnesses or victims. María Paula Hoyos (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Colombia) and Victoria Basualdo (CONICET, Argentina) homed in on the cases of Colombia and Argentina, respectively. Hoyos considered what incentives transnational corporations might have to voluntarily submit to transitional justice mechanisms, like Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace, while Basualdo highlighted the role that academic research has played in securing legal prosecutions in Argentina in cases of corporate responsibility for human rights violations committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

The final panel of the day examined “Corporate accountability and the protection of the environment.” Various panelists highlighted the vulnerability of indigenous peoples as both primary victims of abuses and defenders of the environment from corporate abuses, emphasizing that indigenous land often contains natural resources that are subject to claims by extractive projects, creating potential for conflict. Anouska Perram (Forest People’s Program) and Isaac de Paz González (Autonomous University of Baja California) focused on the challenge of addressing land issues in transnational human rights mechanisms and indigenous peoples’ successful litigation in the Inter-American system. Chiara Macchi (Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies) highlighted that climate change presents an additional area of legal risk for businesses. Melissa Kim (Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General) closed the panel with an exercise in putting research on the environment, businesses, and human rights into policymaking practice. She explicitly asked the audience to think like policymakers, making the case for “legislative action on human rights due diligence for Canada’s extractive sector.” 

The conference concluded with a keynote address by Alejandra Ancheita, founder and Executive director of the Mexico City-based ProDESC (The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project) and comments by Miriam Saage-Maaß (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights). After outlining the model of strategic preventative litigation developed by ProDESC to defend communities’ rights in Mexico, Ancheita exhorted the audience to fight back against predatory corporations by working together with affected communities to build spaces of hope and use tools, like strategic preventative litigation, to avoid harm in the first place. She concluded with the powerful declaration that human rights are universal, and therefore so must be their defense.

A selection of conference pictures can be found here.

Author: Jamie Shenk (Member of Oxford Transitional Justice Research and DPhil Candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford)