Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.
Today, more than 40 million people live in slavery — exploited for sex or labor, and controlled by threats, violence, coercion, deception and/or abuse of power, according to the International Labour Office (Global Estimates of Modern Slavery 2017, International Labour Office). They are forced to work in dangerous and punishing conditions — to make bricks, peel prawns, mine tin and gold, pick cotton and weave carpets. It is a crime that demands a legal response, but although national laws prohibit and criminalize slavery or create civil means to pursue its perpetrators, these mechanisms are often poorly enforced and the organizations seeking to deploy them are poorly resourced. As a leader in the global movement to end modern slavery, the Freedom Fund sees the law as a powerful tool to transform the systems that enable modern slavery to persist.
Our Legal Strategies initiative seeks to strengthen existing legal frameworks against slavery while supporting the development of new avenues of accountability. A key feature of our grantmaking is a focus on corporate accountability. Companies may be implicated in the use of forced labor in their business operations and supply chains, but because such exploitation often happens overseas in countries with minimal legal protections for workers and lax enforcement of whatever protections exist, they are able to operate with impunity. Our strategy aims to create targeted, coordinated, and multi-pronged legal pressure on corporations to address modern slavery, using the deterrent effect of litigation to compel businesses to change their practices.
The challenges of strategic litigation
In 2017, the Freedom Fund started to directly fund anti-slavery strategic litigation, supporting groundbreaking efforts to establish important legal precedents to eliminate modern slavery. Over the past three years, we have developed a dynamic portfolio of grants supporting a range of legal efforts across seven jurisdictions. Running through all our programming is an emphasis on the need to adopt an expansive approach to using the law and harnessing a wide range of legal mechanisms to tackle modern slavery. So, at the same time we are supporting civil lawsuits or criminal complaints, we're also dedicating funding to explore how trade law can be used to disrupt imports of goods tainted by modern slavery.
Our program operates within a nascent area of human rights litigation that presents us with numerous challenges. Strategic litigation can be high-risk and expensive and often holds limited prospects of success. Lawsuits against corporations for human rights abuses in their overseas operations involve complex areas of domestic and international law, and there are only a small group of organizations and law firms (mostly based in North America and Europe) with the expertise and appetite to pursue such cases. What's more, cases may take years and many fail even before they reach a court. We've also seen an increase in the use of defamation suits against NGOs and human-rights defenders that seek to reclaim their rights in court. So-called SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) suits have a chilling effect on the willingness of groups or individuals to bring cases against powerful corporate or government actors, especially in domestic courts.
Increased investment is crucial
As a funder, there inevitably will be a limit to the number of individual cases we can support. This is why we're now concentrating our efforts on building a global strategic litigation ecosystem, with long-term sustainability at its core. Crucially, this involves supporting on-the-ground investigations that can form the backbone of future cases, as well as equipping groups in the Global South with the skills needed to help overcome the barriers to investigating and pursuing strategic litigation against corporates, whether in their own jurisdiction or overseas.
There is a clear need for additional funding in this area. The Freedom Fund is one of few donors actively supporting international human rights litigation. Increased investment in such efforts, including through donor collaboration, is essential if we are to advance the global accountability agenda and end impunity for human rights abusers.
Nick Grono (@nickgrono) is CEO of the Freedom Fund.