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Update on PIL Aspects of Environmental Damage and Human Rights Violations in Supply Chains

This post was contributed by Olivera Boskovic, who is a Professor at the Université de Paris.

The situation of victims of environmental damages or human rights violations caused in non-EU countries by subsidiaries or subcontractors of companies established in the EU (but the issue can be extended to companies merely operating in the EU) trying to bring actions before the courts of EU Member States is well known. The Shell case, in which victims of serious environmental damage in Nigeria sued the Dutch parent company and its Nigerian subsidiary before the Dutch court, is quite emblematic in this respect. (The last decision in this case has been issued on 29th of January 2021 by the Hague Court of Appeal. See Shell Nigeria liable for oil spills in Nigeria). The need to modify certain rules of private international law in order to address these actions in a satisfactory manner has been debated for some time now. The purpose of this post is to provide an update and examine the current state of the debate. Difficult questions may arise both concerning jurisdiction and concerning the determination of applicable law.


Jurisdiction, first of all, remains problematic although the situation has somewhat improved in recent years. From a European perspective, as the law stands today, a first fundamental distinction is between cases in which the defendant is domiciled in an EU Member State and those in which the defendant is domiciled in a third country.

Where the action is brought against a defendant domiciled in an EU Member State (i.e, in our context, actions brought directly against the parent company or the ordering company), jurisdiction is based on the Brussels Ia Regulation. This regulation always allows a defendant to be sued in the court of his domicile, so that jurisdiction should not be a problem in this case. (For example, in the Shell case the jurisdiction of the Dutch court to hear the action against the Dutch company did not pose any problem). Instead, the obstacles are of a substantive nature and relate to the difficulty of holding companies liable for the actions of their subsidiaries or subcontractors.

The situation is more problematic when the defendant is domiciled outside the EU, (i.e. in our context when the action is brought against subsidiaries or subcontractors who are direct perpetrators of the damage or simply against companies domiciled outside the EU). These actions are excluded from the scope of the Brussels Ia Regulation. They are subject to the national laws of the Member States, and the rules may therefore differ considerably from one country to another. Generally speaking, it is quite difficult to establish the jurisdiction of a Member State court in this type of case. One can therefore consider that there is a problem of access to justice, in so far as the rules of jurisdiction do not take account of economic links, or even the economic unity of groups of companies. Nevertheless, there are avenues available and in particular two worth mentioning: the co-defendants’ rule and the forum necessitatis (or jurisdiction based on the risk of denial of justice) Indeed, several Member States have rules based on one or other of these mechanisms, or even both. As a reminder, the co-defendants’ rule makes it possible, when an action is brought against several defendants, one of whom is domiciled in the forum State and the other outside the EU, to sue all the defendants before the court of the domicile of the one domiciled in the forum State, provided of course that the claims are related. The forum necessitatis, on the other hand, allows the court of the forum to be seized when no foreign court can be seized by the claimant, who therefore risks a denial of justice. More than the issues raised by the application of each of these rules what is noteworthy is the lack of unification at the European level. As regards the forum necessitatis, its introduction into the Brussels I Regulation was proposed in 2010 and again recently in 2020, but without success. As for the co-defendants rule (involving a defendant domiciled outside the EU), its introduction in the Regulation has never been proposed.

New Grounds of Jurisdiction in the Brussels Ibis Regulation

Nevertheless, it appears that the introduction of these two rules into the Regulation would be a real improvement. Of course, this opinion is not shared by all writers. There are divergent views among scholars. Some are hostile to the introduction of the forum necessitatis. (see Ch. Tomale, On the EP draft report on corporate due diligence) They consider there is no need for such a rule, especially at a time when the Supreme court of the United States is moving in the opposite direction and has adopted a very strict position. However, contrary to what can sometimes be read, the idea is not to allow member state courts to hear cases with no connection whatsoever to the EU. A minimum link with the legal order of the court seized is required by all proposals (see the GEDIP proposal concerning the private international law aspects of the future European instrument on corporate due diligence and corporate accountability, October 2021; draft treaty on business and human rights, August 2020; Sofia guidelines for international civil litigation for human rights violation, 2012 adopted by the ILA). Of course, the question is then whether this minimum link should be defined by the rule or left for the court to decide. Taking into account the diversity of situations that may occur, it is preferable to leave the definition of the minimum link to the courts. This seems to be the approach adopted by recent initiatives. On the contrary, other scholars consider that situations where a real risk of denial of justice can be characterised are the only situations in which European courts should rule on this type of dispute. The concern that home state courts should not consider that it is always better for them to decide this type of case and that they should assert jurisdiction only when it is really necessary because the host state courts cannot handle the litigation in a satisfactory way has been voiced by many commentators during debates. Even the Court of Appeal in the famous Vedanta case decided in the UK commented that ‘there must come a time when access to justice in this type of case will not be achieved by exporting cases, but by the availability of local lawyers, experts, and sufficient funding to enable the cases to be tried locally”. Scholars who hold this position are implicitly hostile to the co-defendants rule. These differences raise the question of relations between these two grounds of jurisdiction and whether one should be preferred. In the opinion of the present writer the answer is no. These rules are complementary. (The opinion according to which the forum necessitates rule is a second-best solution and an activity-based rule could be imagined is also worth mentioning. This question was discussed during the interesting webinar on “The recommendation of GEDIP concerning the private international aspects of the future EU instrument on corporate due diligence and corporate accountability” organised by the Italian Interest group on Private international law on December 10 2021 featuring as speakers H. Van Loon and Giulia Vallar.)

Therefore, the minimum solution would be to introduce into the Brussels Ia Regulation the forum necessitatis which allows victims to bring an action in front of the court of a EU Member State, irrespective of the existence of a co-defendant domiciled in an EU Member State, but on condition that they can show that it is impossible to bring the case before another court. The rule is devised as an exceptional rule. If the European legislator wanted to go further, (it is the present writer’s opinion that this is desirable), they should introduce, in addition, the co-defendants rule, which makes it easier to bring an action, without the need to show the impossibility of seizing another court, but provided that a European defendant is also involved in the proceedings and that the claims are related. This approach has been adopted by several recent initiatives. The latest version (August 2020) of the draft binding treaty on business and human rights negotiated within the UN framework contains both rules. The same is true of the GEDIP recommendation to the European Commission. Considering the fact that England has often been described as a magnet forum for this type of litigation, it is interesting to note that in all these proposals, contrary to the English system, the two grounds of jurisdiction (presence of a forum-based co-defendant and the risk of denial of justice) are two separate grounds of jurisdiction. This indeed seems to be a better solution. Another difference lies in the fact that the English system takes into account the risk of substantial denial of justice whereas the forum necessitatis focuses on the impossibility to seize another court. However, the two systems might be closer than they seem at first sight. The impossibility to seize another court can be characterized if the claimant can not “reasonably” seize another court. This is an open door for consideration of a risk of substantial denial of justice. In a nutshell, it appears that the attractivity of the English forum does not lie in rules on jurisdiction.

Parallel Litigation

Another important question relating to jurisdiction is the question of parallel proceedings. The Mariana Dam case recently brought in front of the English courts shed light upon this question. In the aftermath of the worst environmental disaster in the history of Brazil, an action was brought in the UK against the Anglo-Australian mining multinational BHP. It was initially rejected, but has been reopened in July 2021 under exceptional appeals legislations (CPR 52.30) in order to “avoid real injustice”. The way lis pendens and the related actions exceptions are treated is very important. In addition to the problem of parallel litigation brought by victims both in the host and in the home country, It is vital to make sure that they are not transformed into weapons by potential defendants seeking declarations of non-liability in non-member States and then invoking the lis pendens or related actions exception. However, one may consider that the tools that already exist in the Bia regulation are satisfactory and that no legislative reform is needed on this point. Although relying on the conditions of recognition and the concept of “good administration of justice” can seem a bit vague, it is submitted that a certain degree of judicial discretion is inevitable.

Applicable Law

After jurisdiction, the second question concerns the determination of the law applicable to these actions. As the law stands today, a difficulty arises from the fact that choice of law rules often designate the law of the place of the damage, which in these cases is frequently the law of a country outside the EU with a less developed legal system. In reality, to understand the current situation, a twofold distinction must be made, firstly according to whether or not the defendant is domiciled in the EU, and secondly according to whether it is a question of environmental damage or a human rights violation. With regard to actions against defendants domiciled outside the EU, (i.e. in current litigation, actions against subsidiaries and subcontractors), they will always be governed by the law of the place where the damage occurred, which corresponds to the law of their activity. (It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean impunity for these defendants. For example, in the Shell case the Dutch court held the Nigerian subsidiary liable by virtue of Nigerian law). On the other hand, with regard to actions against parent companies or ordering companies established in the EU, as the law stands today, a distinction must be made between cases involving environmental damage and cases involving a violation of human rights. The former are covered by Article 7 of the Rome II Regulation, which allows the claimant to choose between the law of the place of the event giving rise to the damage and the law of the place where the damage occurred. The latter are covered by Article 4, which designates exclusively the law of the place of the damage. This last rule, in our context, is problematic. This problem is at the origin of the proposal by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs to insert an Article 6a on “Actions for breach of human rights in commercial matters” which would have allowed the victim to choose between several laws.

The first question that arose upon publication of the proposal was: do we need a new choice of law rule? Some scholars consider that we do not and that it is sufficient to classify the rules of the future European instrument as overriding mandatory provisions (see. the post of G. Rühl here). However, a different view is possible. It is the opinion of the present writer that a choice of law rule would indeed be useful. Indeed, by definition, only a limited number of provisions can be characterised as overriding mandatory provisions. The rules on limitation, for example, will not be considered as such. However, they can be quite decisive in litigation. The action may be dismissed because, for example, the law of the place of the damage, which is a law of a non-EU country, contains a very short limitation period. Therefore, a choice of law rule would protect the victims more than the overriding mandatory rules method and consequently contribute to the public interest objective of making companies more responsible. In any event, the two methods can be combined. The adoption of a new choice of law rule for human right abuses, would not make the overriding mandatory rules approach irrelevant. This is also the position of the GEDIP. In its recommendation it combines the two approaches.

Extending the Scope of Article 7 Rome II

Going back to the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs’ proposal, although it is the opinion of the present writer that a special choice of law rule is indeed desirable, the provision as proposed was not immune from criticism (See. O. Boskovic, « La loi applicable aux « actions pour violations des droits de l’homme en matière commerciale », Recueil Dalloz 11 fév. 2021, p. 252). Firstly, having two provisions, one applicable to environmental damage and the other applicable to human rights violations would cause very difficult boundary problems (bearing in mind, for example, that according to some estimates one third of human rights violations involve environmental offences). Secondly, the connecting factors used in the proposed article 6a raised many questions. For this reason, it appears more appropriate to have a single choice of law rule for human rights violations and for environmental damage. Article 7 should therefore be rewritten to include human rights violations. The victim would then be able to choose between the law of the place of the damage and the law of the place where the event giving rise to the damage occurred, which would increase their chances of success. (This is also the position of the GEDIP proposal. However, one should note that the scope of the GEDIP proposal is wider and applies, just like the future European instrument, not only to human rights and environmental damages but also to good governance. The precise definition of this last concept is difficult and the desirability of having the same rule is debatable. This very interesting question was discussed during the above-mentioned webinar organised by the Italian interest group on private international law.) However, this idea then gives rise to another question: How should the “event giving rise to the damage” be interpreted in this context? Obviously, for the text to achieve its objective, it must be accepted that the event giving rise to the damage can, at least if the factual circumstances are appropriate, be located at the place where the decisions were or were not taken, i.e. at the domicile of the parent company (a recital could be inserted to encourage such an interpretation) (I have developed these ideas in O. Boskovic, « La loi applicable aux « actions pour violations des droits de l’homme en matière commerciale », Recueil Dalloz 11 fév. 2021, p. 252.). The Hague Tribunal in the Shell case ruled along these lines in its decision issued on May 26th 2021, which has already been characterised as historical. It is interesting to note that a similar question arose in the Arica v. Boliden case decided by the Swedish courts in 2019. In this case under Swedish choice of law rules, applicable rationae temporis, the lex loci delicti commissi applied. In determining the locus delicti commissi, the court held that the center of gravity should be found and that ‘This center may be established with regard to where the qualitatively important elements have their focus rather than according to quantitative criteria’. Therefore, in this case concerning the export of toxic waste from Sweden to Chile, contrary to the first instance decision, the court of appeal held that the event giving rise to the damage was localized in Sweden. It is certain that agreeing on an adequate choice of law rule is not enough. The localization of the connecting factors is of paramount importance. (A similar question arose in the Nestlé v. Doe case. The Supreme Court explained that, because the ATS does not apply extraterritorially, in order for the court to have jurisdiction “plaintiffs must establish that conduct relevant to the statute’s focus occurred in the United States”. This was not the case because the only relevant alleged domestic conduct by the defendants consisted of general corporate activity-like decisionmaking- which  is insufficient to establish domestic application of the ATS. Contrary to the emerging trend in the EU, the Supreme Court of the US has shown continuous caution on this matter, apparently considering that it is not a matter for judicial lawmaking)

Revising Article 17 Rome II

Another important question concerns situations where poor performance of contractual obligations causes damage to third parties. The Kik case in Germany or Begun v. Maran case in the UK come to mind. A very important step in the fight for corporate accountability would be to facilitate actions brought by these third parties The aim is to ensure that the ethical and environmental clauses contained in international contracts do not remain a dead letter. Indeed, as the Court of Appeal observed in Begun v. Maran, often all protagonists know that theses clauses will be totally ignored. A revision of Article 17 of the Rome II Regulation could thus be envisaged in the form of the addition of a sentence: “Account shall also be taken of the ethical clauses contained in the contracts whose breach has caused the damage.” (on this problem see our forthcoming article « Contrats internationaux et protection de l’environnement », in actes du colloque du 15 juin 2021, Le droit économique, levier de la transition écologique ?)

Finally, it appears that the possibility of applying more widely foreign overriding mandatory provisions would contribute to the pursuit of these global governance goals. A modification of Rome I and Rome II along these lines would be welcome.

As these few remarks show, the debate on private international law aspects of corporate social accountability is far from over.

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