9 Operational-level grievance mechanisms
What is an operational-level grievance mechanism?
In the framework of the UNGP, the term “grievance mechanism” refers to the options that affected persons or stakeholders can use to lodge complaints or disputes against organisations. An operational-level grievance mechanism is in turn defined as “a formalized means through which individuals or groups can raise concerns about the impact an enterprise has on them—including, but not exclusively, on their human rights—and can seek remedy”.
The purposes of such a mechanism are: firstly, to allow stakeholders (including local communities) to raise concerns and provide opportune feedback about adverse human rights impacts that an organisation’s activities may cause; secondly, to complement the human rights due diligence process; and thirdly, to allow these stakeholders to claim a remedy if the adverse effect has already been caused.
As voluntary mechanisms, operational-level grievance mechanisms are also useful for identifying adverse human rights impacts with the participation of local communities and stakeholders. This complements the inquiries of the organisation and informs the management about adverse impacts which could not be identified by an impact assessment undertaken by the organisation. Operational-level grievance mechanisms also complement reporting systems because the feedback received from the stakeholders can help to identify risks and take tailored decisions to address them.
State-based and non-state-based grievance mechanisms are a way to fulfil the right to access to justice, which is protected by the ECHR, the EU Charter and the Treaty of the EU (TEU). These treaties oblige member states to grant effective access to justice. In environmental protection, access to justice is also guaranteed by the Aarhus Convention.
The UNGP seek to implement this right by recommending that a complaint mechanism be accessible to any person or community who could be adversely impacted by the activities of organisations. The nature and structure may vary, as any organisation can create its own operational-level grievance mechanism or join collaborative initiatives of a specific sector or group of stakeholders. Small and medium-sized organisations in particular can use complaint mechanisms offered by larger associations or by multi-stakeholder initiatives.
The aim of operational-level grievance mechanisms is to provide actual or potential victims of adverse human rights impacts with an easy and accessible way to report risks, demand action from the implicated organisation from the moment they perceive a risk or claim a remedy. These mechanisms are not overburdened by legal formalities, as is the case with many state-based mechanisms. Therefore, operational-level grievance mechanisms also have a preventive objective of seeking the redress of an adverse impact before concrete damage is produced. In any case, their effectiveness depends on the possibility of stakeholders addressing the risk or obtaining a remedy.
The UNGP recommends the implementation of joint oversight mechanisms composed of representatives of organisations and stakeholders, in order to guarantee more transparency and generate trust. Large organisations such as major corporations, investment banks or other organisations with activities in several jurisdictions are expected to implement their own grievance mechanisms. Small and medium-sized organisations in turn can develop simpler grievance mechanisms or participate in grievance mechanisms provided by external organisations. If an organisation does not provide its own complaint mechanism, it is in any case expected to cooperate in the remediation process.
Organisations can also use complaint mechanisms created by multi-stakeholder initiatives or by funding organisations, particularly when their activity is complex, or when public and private organisations are involved. At the international level, the World Bank has implemented the Grievance Redress Service (GRS) to address complaints from affected communities in the framework of projects financed by the World Bank. In addition, the World Bank Inspection Panel is a mechanism available to stakeholders in projects funded by the World Bank’s International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA). The main aim is to verify compliance, but these mechanisms do not offer the additional possibility of remedy.
All regional investment banks also have a complaint mechanism. In the case of Belgium, the European Investment Bank complaint mechanism is available to stakeholders in projects financed by the bank. Other national institutions that fund private activities, such as BIO, also have similar complaint mechanisms. Most of them do not directly provide a remedy, but aim to process feedback in order to address risks highlighted by stakeholders.
When operational-level grievance mechanisms do not provide an effective remedy, victims and stakeholders should seek an effective remedy through state-based remedial mechanisms. According to the UNGP (Principles 26 and 27), remedies should be offered by any branch or agency of the state, or “by an independent body on a statutory or constitutional basis”. State-based mechanisms may include administrative, legislative and judicial mechanisms, as well as other options that meet the effectiveness criteria for non-judicial grievance mechanisms set out by the UNGP (Principle 31). In Belgium, relevant state-based mechanisms are summarised in a booklet released by FIDO/IFDD. When an adverse impact involves serious human rights violations, state-based mechanisms are unavoidable, because the state bears the main responsible for promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights within its jurisdiction.
Operational-level grievance mechanisms can also collaborate with or complement state-based remedial mechanisms. Sometimes, when an adverse impact does not necessarily require the intervention of the state, operational-level grievance mechanisms can provide a more opportune solution, and in some cases, a remedy. The UNGP (principle 29) corroborates that operational-level grievance mechanisms can benefit stakeholders when they are approached early and can provide a direct remedy. Some indicators have been designed to verify the effectiveness of these mechanisms by measuring the accessibility and receptiveness of the implicated organisation, and the trust the stakeholder may have in the mechanisms.
If no agreement is reached at the operational level, stakeholders and the organisation can try to jointly reach an agreement with the intervention of mediators, or collaborate with state bodies to find a solution via a state-based mechanism. The parties involved can appoint an external expert or mediation body. Among the most commonly used third-party mediation bodies are the National Contact Points of the OECD.
The state can also use the results of operational-level grievance mechanisms to support its own actions aimed at stopping abuses and providing remedy to victims. Operational-level grievance mechanisms can also be implemented by NGOs and other organisations from the non-profit sector, as their activities can also cause adverse human rights impacts.
- What is a remedy?
The main goal of the operational-level grievance mechanism is to provide an effective remedy to victims when human rights are violated. The concept of remedy has not yet been clearly defined. The UNGP refers to a remedy as “apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, financial or non-financial compensation and punitive sanctions (whether criminal or administrative, such as fines)”. A remedy can also include interim measures to avoid an irreparable harm, such as “injunctions or guarantees of non-repetition”. The right to truth is also a remedy that seeks to obtain information about and disclose human rights abuses.
The Van Boven/Bassiouni Principles delineate the concept of remedy for gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law. These principles are useful because they coincide with the concept of remedy in the UNGP and clarify the scope of the components:
“Equal and effective access to justice” “Adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered” “Access to relevant information concerning violations and reparation mechanisms”
The outcomes of a complaint should in principle grant an effective remedy. However, this depends on the types of remedy, the situation, the rights violated and the seriousness of the adverse impact and/or damage. Victims or stakeholders are also not always aware of their rights, because grievances are not always structured in human rights terms. This is usual because operational-level grievance mechanisms may also receive complaints other than breaches of human rights. Some risks may also not be directly connected with a specific human right, but if not addressed, may result in harm to human rights.
The effectiveness of a remedy depends on the possibility of obtaining it and the satisfaction of victims. Therefore, mechanisms that provide the most complete satisfaction are the most effective. When no redress or restitution is possible, compensation is considered as an effective remedy. It is used synonymously with indemnity, reparation or even just satisfaction (which is defined by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR article 41). Compensation is an effective remedy if it provides rehabilitation from a physical, psychological and social perspective. The main challenge in human rights compensation is how to quantify immaterial damages such as suffering, distress, or adverse impacts on reputation or human dignity.
Effective access to remedy should also include reduction or elimination of obstacles that could hinder victims or stakeholders from claiming remedy, such as costs, technical requirements or language barriers.
The UNGP (Principle 31) recommends that state-based non-judicial and operational-based grievance mechanisms be:
- legitimate – that is, trusted and accountable for the fair conduct of processes; accessible to all stakeholders that may/should use them;
- predictable – that is, they should provide clear information on the procedure, indicative timeframes, expected outcomes and monitoring mechanisms for implementation;
- equitable and transparent – this also refers to the provision of reasonable access to sources of information, advice and expertise;
- in accordance with public interests and rights-compatible – that is, in line with internationally recognised human rights law;
- constructive and capable of influencing policy, to avoid future harm. Analysis of the frequency, patterns and causes of grievances are useful for formulating new policies to ensure non-repetition of abuses.
This section presents a selection of guidelines related to the implementation of operational-level grievance mechanisms by all types of organisations and in diverse contexts.
- UN level
10 steps to setting up an effective feedback mechanism
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), based on field experience, has formulated these steps for implementing a feedback mechanism, which is one of the purposes of an operational-level grievance mechanism. These steps are:
- Define the challenge with the participation of the communities and humanitarian responders to identify the barriers to processing feedback.
- Create a sustainable mechanism by recognizing the existing staff capacities and services.
- Use the community’s preferred communication channels.
- Coordinate internal and external roles and responsibilities of the organisations. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can clarify the commitments, timeframe for follow-up, and roles.
- Focus on the relevant information collected by structuring the data
- Process sensitive issues by using a safe and confidential space for reporting.
- Continuously revise to identify the level of utilization of the mechanism by stakeholders.
- Adapt the mechanism to the dynamics of the responses.
- Provide access to data processing and sharing.
- Respond to feedback by indicating changes and reasons for inaction.
CAO Grievance mechanisms toolkit
The Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) of the World Bank released thistoolkit to support stakeholders in addressing concerns and complaints when they are affected by IFC/MIGA-supported projects. This toolkit aims at enhancing the social and environmental outcomes of projects and ensure a satisfactory solution for involved stakeholders. The mechanisms do not seek to directly provide a definitive remedy but to provide an “efficient, immediate, and low-cost form of problem solving and remedy for both companies and communities”.
The tools provided are oriented towards identifying:
- the body/person responsible for implementing and operating the grievance mechanism;
- the required qualifications for the grievance mechanism staff;
- the most effective methods for promoting a grievance mechanism;
- the obstacles to effective use of a grievance mechanism; and
- the key elements of a written structure for a grievance mechanism procedure.
- OECD complaint procedure
The OECD Watch Guide to the Guidelines “Calling for Corporate Accountability” (2013) (Tool 9)
OECD Watch is a global network of civil society organisations that monitors how the OECD Guidelines are implemented and how National Contact Points (NCP) of the OECD address the complaints lodged against corporations. These guidelines assist stakeholders affected by corporate behaviour in seeking a satisfactory remedy through an OECD Guidelines complaint. The target stakeholders are persons, communities, NGOs and trade unions.
In addition, the website Filing OECD Guidelines complaints provides a detailed guide for stakeholders to preparing the necessary documentation and triggering the complaint procedure. Such a complaint is usually lodged as a subsidiary option to the existing operational-level complaint mechanisms of the involved organisation, because the latter did not settle the dispute or because the implicated parties prefer the mediation of the OECD NCP.
OECD Watchhas developed this online case check to assist potential users of the OECD NCP in assessing whether the OECD Guidelines can be used to address the adverse impact. This case check consists of a set of questions to identify whether the OECD Guidelines would apply to the specific case. The feedback is in the form of tailored advice on the particular situation and on which NCP would be the most suitable for lodging the complaint.
- EU multi-stakeholder initiatives for specific sectors
These comprehensive guidelines for specific economic sectors, include a specific guidance on remedial and operational-level grievance mechanisms that involves three systematic phases:
- Building a systematic approach to remediation
- Mapping and working with external remediation processes
- Designing effective operational-level grievance mechanisms
The guidance also advises on the role of the organisation’s various staff members in processing the complaint. The management should design the guidelines to implement an effective operational-level grievance mechanism, based on existing resources. On the ground, it is important that the competent officer firstly identifies the existing state-based and non-state-based grievance processes, such as judicial procedures and informal dispute resolution processes; and secondly, identifies internal and external stakeholders that can support the design of a trusted mechanism.
- Guidelines from non-state actors
The case map is a joint project of the international non-profit organisation Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and the NGO Liberty Asia. It displays the geographic spread of key business and human rights lawsuits and selected complaints lodged before National Contact Points (NCP) of the OECD. The map provides information on the proceedings, the countries and issues involved, legislation used and dates. Although it largely covers state-based complaint mechanisms, it is an informative resource to identify complaints against specific corporations or in specific regions.
Doing business with respect for human rights: Chapter 3.8 Remediation and grievance mechanisms ‘early warning, effective solutions’
The Global Perspectives Project or the Global Compact Network Netherlands, Oxfam and Shift launched this guide to explain the concept of remediation, map existing grievance mechanisms, explain the effectiveness criteria of the UNGP (Principle 31), promote the involvement of external stakeholders and improve the performance of grievance mechanisms. These guidelines can also be used by other organisations to implement their own grievance mechanisms.
The European Business Network for CSR (CSR Europe/ Enterprise 2020) is an NGO created by corporations (mainly MNEs) and national partner organisations, such as The Shift in Belgium. With the support of Enterprise 2020, it launched CSR Europe Assessment Tools that support self-evaluation of CSR compliance. The operational complaint mechanisms for employees and/or communities have been designed together with a checklist for effective grievance mechanisms to help organisations verify whether implemented mechanisms comply with the effectiveness criteria in the UNGP.
Assessing the effectiveness of company grievance mechanisms - CSR Europe’s management of complaints assessment (Moc-A) Results (2013)
This report by CSR Europe is based on the results of its Collaborative Project on Sustainable Supply Chains, Business & Human Rights. The aim is to guide corporations in implementing mechanisms for addressing human rights complaints. The report basically elaborates the scope of the efficiency criteria defined in the UNGP (Principle 31) and develops a methodology to apply the criteria to evaluate operational-level grievance mechanisms. Although it refers to corporations, the report can be useful for other types of organisations too.
Transparency international (2016) has developed this guidance for implementing a corruption complaint mechanism. The aim is to allow citizens to report cases in an easy and efficient way. Such a complaint mechanism also aims to offer a channel for feedback on the quality of a service provided, for alerts on human rights or environmental risks, and for communicating irregularities and corruption. These mechanisms can be used by public and private organisations or communities. They are intended for grievances and not limited to corruption, but take into account national legislation regarding which complaints can be processed without required intervention from the state.
The guide also includes good practices for establishing and implementing complaint mechanisms, based on Transparency International’s experience and referring to relevant mechanisms and literature on the topic. The guide can be used by governments, private organisations, or any other institution.
This guidance from the CSR initiative of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University focuses on the explanation and implementation of each of the effectiveness criteria defined in the ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ framework, which was later adopted in the UNGP (Principle 31). The guidance further supports the design of an operational-level grievance mechanism to manage, prevent and solve disputes with active stakeholder engagement, including from local communities. It also includes performance indicators to evaluate such mechanisms – that is, to measure whether they are being used, whether complaints are processed, and whether risks are being reduced.
This online platform of the NGO Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) brings together SOMO’s most important resources on grievance mechanisms. Some of the most relevant are:
This online guide illustrates the procedure to be followed when triggering a grievance mechanism. It provides general advice on each step. It also clarifies that the particular rules of each mechanism are not indicated, and that users should therefore evaluate these on a case by case basis. The steps are listed below with corresponding hyperlinks:
- Step 1: Consider filing a complaint
- Step 2: Identify the entities causing or contributing to the harm
- Step 3: Map the grievance mechanisms that may apply
- Step 4: Identify your desired outcomes
- Step 5: Choose the appropriate grievance mechanism
- Step 6: Prepare for the complaint
- Step 7: Write the complaint
- Step 8: File the complaint
- Step 9: Engage in the process
- Step 10: Follow-up
SOMO How to use the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in company research and advocacy (2012)
This guide aims to provide a uniform reference framework for civil society organisations (CSOs) using the UNGP to address the responsibility of organisations to respect human rights. It also seeks to support local communities and stakeholders in seeking fulfilment of their rights. The guide also indicates how to use the UNGP in practice. It provides guidance on the UN human rights system by describing the UN human rights treaty bodies, special procedures and Human Rights Council, as well as ways in which to file complaints.
The patchwork of non-judicial grievance mechanisms: addressing the limitations of the current landscape (2015)
These guidelines are part of SOMO’s Human Rights & Grievance Mechanisms Programme, which aims to improve the accessibility and effectiveness of non-judicial grievance mechanisms for stakeholders affected by adverse human rights impacts. This project also includes brochures of some representative non-judicial mechanisms to orient users in filing complaints. These guidelines mainly refer to complaints before regional and international investment banks and the OECD NCP.
This report from Shift presents an in-depth analysis of operational-level grievance mechanisms. One of the main contributions of this report is “mapping the place of a grievance mechanism inside organisations or alongside value chains”. It identifies the internal and external mechanisms that can be involved in processing a grievance, even if most of them are not directly framed in human rights terms. It mentions ethics hotlines, internal mechanisms designed for employees’ claims audit processes, external mechanisms designed to process complaints from consumers or affected communities, code of conduct requirements for suppliers, supply chain hotlines and stakeholder engagement, among others.
This variety of mechanisms represents a major challenge to obtaining an effective remedy, because internal processes for following up complaints are not well defined. A clear definition of tasks is crucial to implementing an appropriate process for addressing a particular type of grievance.
Although the UNGP recommend implementing a general operational-level grievance mechanism, this report concludes that a generalised grievance mechanism is not necessarily the most efficient, because the body/person responsible for processing the grievance may lack expertise.
- Stakeholder consultation
Stakeholder consultation is a crucial component throughout the due diligence process, and hence also in implementing grievance mechanisms. Stakeholders play a central role in the success of operational-level grievance mechanisms because they have a real interest in addressing the adverse impacts. They can also be part of the mechanisms to find solutions for vulnerable populations.
Stakeholders may also have more detailed information about the activities of public or private organisations that could produce adverse human right impacts. Therefore, their participation is increasingly being promoted by international organisations and multi-stakeholder initiatives, with the aim of persuading or requesting states and private organisations to take stakeholders’ perspectives into consideration when they regulate, authorise or perform risky activities.
Complementary to stakeholder engagement, some NGOs such as Earth Rights International and SOMO, promote a model of community-driven operational grievance mechanisms to improve engagement and dialogue with users and stakeholders. This active involvement can improve the “rights-compatibility” of the mechanism – that is, the outcome will be in line with international human rights rules and principles. This model can also increase awareness among organisations that implement the mechanisms by creating a relationship of trust with local communities and increasing the possibility of receiving feedback from users.
There are various guidelines for implementing stakeholder consultation that any kind of organisation can use:
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank and the European Commission have released these guidelines to promote transparent processes in policymaking. They can also be used by private and public organisations for the same purposes, independently of whether the procedures are mandatory or not.
The guidelines from the EU Better Regulations for all (2015)
These guidelines, which orient EU officers in evaluating their actions, include a chapter to guide EU institutions in promoting stakeholder consultation. The general aim is to collect information, opinions and insights to complement the assessment performed by the involved institution; to raise awareness of activities and assessments that seek to avoid adverse impacts; and to assess whether the measures taken for a specific purpose can be achieved.
Stakeholder engagement manual volume 2: The practitioner's handbook on stakeholder engagement (2005)
UNEP released this best practice guide to stakeholder engagement to raise awareness about the necessity of including stakeholders in environmental decisions, considering that they are a central actor for reaching the SDG targets.
UNDP launched these standards for all its projects and programmes. They are part of the UNDP Strategic Plan Integrated Results and Resources Framework. These standards are relevant for this tool because they are supported by an accountability mechanism with two components: a) a compliance review to follow up claims of UNDP non-compliance with environmental and social policies; b) a Stakeholder Response Mechanism that provides a procedure for stakeholders to submit their grievances directly related to UNDP projects.
The Guidance Note on Stakeholder Engagement provides the conceptual and policy framework for stakeholder engagement requirements, stakeholder analysis and the development of stakeholder engagement plans. It further promotes stakeholder engagement in screening the project for potential social and environmental risks and impacts, and in managing and monitoring project implementation.
This report from the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) analyses the role and responsibilities of NGOs in shaping grievance mechanisms for worker access to remedy in global supply chains. The report highlights the collaborative role in promoting grievance mechanisms and remedy. NGOs are also important for managing relationships with stakeholders at every stage of the grievance process and collaborating to empower them.
The IASC Commitments on accountability to affected populations (CAAP) tools to assist in meeting the commitments (2012)
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is the mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance. It involves the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners. This committee developed the Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) as a commitment of these agencies to being held accountable by the populations they seek to assist. AAP concerns the responsible use of resources and assistance by humanitarian organisations through systematic inclusion of feedback and accountability mechanisms across the programming cycle.
The tool develops the five key pillars of the IASC commitments. These are focused on stakeholder involvement in the process of accountability, so as to evaluate how a humanitarian organisation can establish, communicate, integrate, implement and sustain the stakeholder involvement over time.
This first international standard on stakeholder engagement was published by AccountAbility, a private research, consulting and standards organisation specialised in corporate responsibility and sustainable development. The AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard is the result of a multi-stakeholder process. This standard can be used by any participant in a stakeholder consultation process and it can be implemented by any type of organisation. The standard further provides guidance on the requirements for good-quality stakeholder engagement, how it is integrated in strategy and operations and how it defines the purpose, scope and stakeholders of an engagement, among others.