Dr Martin Scheinin, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and
counter-terrorism, used an interview at the Commonwealth Secretariat to
lay out his plans for the establishment of a 'World Court of Human
Rights' - a global tribunal that would, for the first time, carry a
mandate to try private companies accused of human rights abuses.
court] would have jurisdiction not only in respect of states, but also
in respect of other actors that have the capacity to affect the
enjoyment of human rights - including transnational corporations," Dr
Scheinin said last Thursday.
Dr Scheinin, a renowned
international law expert from Finland, was speaking following a
counter-terrorism debate at the Commonwealth's headquarters in
London in which he warned governments against "copycatting"
controversial policies such as rendition and called for greater respect
for the rights of victims.
international organisations [as well as] armed groups and terrorists
now have the powers to negate or destruct human rights," he said. "We
need a formal procedure in respect of them. I don't think the other
options are sufficient."
Under Dr Scheinin's plans, to be unveiled later this month, the
World Court of Human Rights would have the power to enforce
legally-binding judgments on transnational companies and organisations
as well as governments and, crucially, would be able to demand
compensation for victims.
The Special Rapporteur's intervention
comes as national courts have increasingly been put under pressure to
hear cases against multinational corporations operating in foreign
jurisdictions. Most high-profile among these is the case against Royal
Dutch Shell for alleged human rights abuses in Nigeria, currently being
heard under an obscure centuries-old law of tort in the United States.
Scheinin however - who over successive years has been a thorn in the
side of governments which he believes have trampled on human rights in
their pursuit of authoritarian counter-terrorist policies - is
unconvinced about whether national courts can effectively deal with
such international disputes.
"I have been around for a long time
in the world of human rights and I have seen many young generations
become enthused about the prospect of the [US Alien Tort Claims Act of
1789] to not only litigate against other states but also individuals or
multinational corporations for human right violations," he said. "I
have seen those waves, and so I'm a bit sceptical as to whether it will
Asked to develop his paper by the Swiss Government
to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, Dr Scheinin's proposals involve giving the United Nations' High
Commissioner for Human Rights the power to request an opinion from the
World Court of Human Rights on a given case. The court's binding
jurisdiction, triggered by complaints from individuals and groups,
would however only be accepted voluntarily or on an ad hoc basis, he
"To me, globalisation is a huge process of de-regulation, where the
protective shield of national legislation falls away and exposes
societies and individuals within them to the direct effect of
multinationals and other international agents," he said. "Because of
this phenomenon called globalisation, multinational corporations are
now exercising powers that only states possessed previously."
"So there is an objective need for making accountable other actors than states."
the panel debate - which was chaired by Eduardo del Buey, director of
communications at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and included
contributions from Arvinder Sambei, director of Amicus Legal
Consultants - Dr Scheinin also offered his verdict on the
counter-terrorist policies of the Commonwealth.
countries tend to benefit from a strong traditional of common law
despite huge differences in economic wealth and levels of political
tension and unrest, he told an audience of 30 officials.
[tradition of common law] creates a strong presumption in favour of
judicial independence and also judicial pride - judges want to be seen
to be independent and to do a good job. That is a strong positive
But he warned that the picture across the world was "not
uniform" and cautioned governments against the practice of
"copycatting", whereby controversial counter-terrorist policies, such
as the UK's 28 days detention without charge, are implemented by others
without also adopting that country's own human rights safeguards.
"Although the pendulum is now shifting back so that increasing
attention is given to human rights when fighting against terrorism,
there is also an undercurrent going in the opposite direction, which I
could refer to as copycatting," he said. "Copycatting the sad, negative
practices of secret detention, rendition and torture - many countries
now think they have permission to do this."
"That is why it is
important that we human rights people pass the message that we will go
after you if you follow this negative example."
Dr Scheinin added
that too often debate on human rights has focused on efforts to
safeguard the rights of terrorist suspects, neglecting concern for the
human rights of victims. "That is a separate component of the human
rights agenda - to push states towards recognising and protecting the
rights of persons suffering from terrorism through the loss of loved
ones or the destruction of property," he said.
"States which are
ruthless in respect of the terrorists usually are ruthless in respect
of the victims of terrorism - they don't care about either. We say not
only should you have procedures to deal properly with the suspected
terrorists, but you should also do justice to the victims - through
compensation, rehabilitation and, if there is displacement, helping
people back to their communities."