When a company has substantial power and influence in a country, people who experience harm may find nobody willing to listen to their claims or take them seriously. This is all too often the case when powerful multinational companies invest in low- or middle-income countries. Spotlighting a case can provide a way for individuals and communities to seek corporate accountability and redress for human rights and environmental abuses.

Several harmful corporate strategies may deflect attention from corporate harms and reduce people’s ability to hold companies accountable and obtain remedy at the local or national level. By using their power to “capture” the state or its agents, companies may utilise state power to obtain favourable treatment or even impunity for their actions. Corporate lobbying can derail or soften regulations intended to impose obligations on companies to protect human rights or the environment. By aligning with suppressive state institutions, companies may avoid accountability for their actions, which local or national governments may overlook or even support.

International spotlight

When companies have substantial influence and power in a country, they can regularly utilise state power to avoid accountability. They often simply ignore affected people or civil society actors. In some cases, corporate interests capture state institutions, or even whole governments.

Shifting the field of engagement from the local or national to the international can change the power dynamics, particularly if the case receives global media attention. The company may be more sensitive to its reputation internationally or in key countries, such as its home state (the country where the company is incorporated and/or headquartered) or where it has a large customer base. Home state governments may also be more motivated to respond to allegations of corporate harm, including by implementing stronger laws regulating corporate behaviour, when there is international media attention or a public outcry. Shareholders may also be more sensitive to reputational damage and press the company to act.

Bringing an international spotlight to bear on the case is often best accomplished when civil society actors in different countries work together, including when international NGOs support local or national organisations. Such alliances can be powerful counterbalances to corporate strategies, but it is important for international NGOs to align their support to what local people, communities, activists, and organisations most need, to work closely with them in defining strategies, and to understand the local implications of different approaches.

An international spotlight does not work equally well in all cases. It will usually have an effect on companies sensitive to reputational damage. But companies based in some countries may feel less pressured by international activism if in their country there is less interest in corporate accountability for harmful impacts.