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My Law School Story: Kelsey Guiot, Uncovering Operational Grievance Mechanisms

Companies behave better when there’s accountability.

At least that’s what New England Law | Boston student Kelsey Guiot '19 has found.

For the past two years, Guiot has been researching the prevalence of operational grievance mechanisms, aka any formal, private corporate complaint process that allows individuals to report when that company’s actions or activities have had a negative impact, including on human rights. In theory, these processes help keep companies in check and protect stakeholders like employees and local community members from future harms while also providing them much needed redress.

But what companies have these operational grievance mechanisms in place? What do their policies entail? What are they doing to address complaints and provide reparations? The answers can vary substantially, but that’s just what Guiot, a third-year law student, and her classmates are trying to figure out with the Operational Grievance Mechanism Research and Monitoring Project (OGM Project).

Led by New England Law Professor Lisa Laplante and conducted through the school’s Center for International Law and Policy, the OGM Project was launched in 2015 to track redress processes used by companies the world over. Guiot joined the project during her first year of law school. It appealed to her longtime passion for human rights work, and she knew it would give her hands-on experience with monitoring work, she says. Now in her final year of law school, she serves as Manager for the OGM Project.

“In the last two years we've seen a huge increase of companies developing human rights policies,” Guiot says. “We continuously are gathering examples of companies around the globe to add to our database,” which includes both human rights policies and operational grievance mechanisms.

In fact, operational grievance mechanisms are seen as such an important from of redress that the United Nations focused on their importance in the “Third Pillar” of its UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Since the UNGPs were approved by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, more and more companies have developed their own human rights policies in keeping with the UN’s recommendations, Guiot says—but plenty of others have not.

The OGM Project targets companies engaged in international commerce who have some or all of the following: subsidiaries; a history of human rights violations; a known impact on local stakeholders; and references to a human rights policy, grievance mechanism, or the U.N.'s guiding principles on their website. The OGM Project has examined close to 200 companies and gathered substantial data on 80 companies with both a human rights policy and OGM process. They hope to investigate around 100 more companies in 2019, Guiot says.

In addition to determining if a company has human rights policies and/or operational grievance mechanisms in place, Guiot and her law school peers are researching what the policies detail, who they apply to, and more. Finally, they research whether the companies list any data on their websites detailing specific claims about negative human rights impacts and reparations. “Those are the main, big things that we're looking for,” she says.

Guiot and the OGM Project team find this information primarily by scouring the Internet and checking individual company websites. The reparations research is a bit tougher, she says, because companies obviously don’t want to highlight information that may paint them in a negative light. So the student researchers turn to legal databases like Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg, and even the United Nation’s website, as well as journalism, advocacy groups, and other sources to help them assess the purported advances of the companies. It all adds up to a lot of time researching online, Guiot says. (While the project has relied primarily on desktop research so far, they’re hopeful that a future phase will integrate field research.)

“No one else has this data,” Guiot says. “We're really the first trying to get this all together in an organized space, for people to be able to look at it.” The ultimate goal of the Operational Grievance Mechanism Research and Monitoring Project is to share their findings with the world, opening up their entire database for anyone to use and reference, be it other lawyers, students, journalists, watchdog organizations—or the United Nations itself. In fact, the OGM Project will be helping the United Nation’s research team by sharing the data they have collected over the past three years. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has its own ongoing research into issues relating to accessing a remedy for negative human rights impacts caused or contributed to by businesses too.

The OGM Project has been working on case studies with their research as well, the first of which they plan to publish in the spring of 2019. These reports will discuss both successful operational grievance mechanisms and examples of how corporations are attempting to comply with the UN’s guiding principles but perhaps falling short.

“In the long term, [the operational grievance mechanism database] could end up being extremely beneficial to businesses around the globe, because they would be able to see a lot of programs that have been implemented that are successful or may be unique in ways that are helpful to them,” Guiot says. “It can help companies learn where they need to improve and also just encourage them, in general, to have an awareness of negative human rights impacts and how to redress them.”

Besides appealing to her interest in human rights law, all this research ties into Guiot’s professional goals: practicing international law after she graduates in May 2019. “I came to New England Law because I had such an interest in international law, and I felt like we had a really unique program here that I couldn't find other places,” Guiot says. “A lot of places only have immigration programs and say that they’re international law programs, whereas I feel like New England Law really had both. I have gotten the most out of both the international and the immigration program here, together and separately.”

In addition to her work on the OGM Project, Guiot is the Secretary of New England Law’s International Law Society. She is also an intern with Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, a role that sparked an interest in refugee and asylum law too. “It's the perfect combination of international and immigration law for me,” Guiot says. “And it's certainly been relevant lately, which was not my intention but I'm rolling with it.” (She ended up doing asylum work for the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic just as the widely publicized caravan of asylum seekers reached the U.S.-Mexico border in the fall of 2018.)

Any current or future law students interested in international legal issues would be well served to work on a research project similar to the Operational Grievance Mechanism Project, Guiot says, particularly because the work is often quite different from the domestic legal research law students typically do. “For anyone that's interested in international law, it's a helpful experience to see another aspect of legal research.”

Guiot thinks increased international pressure has forced companies to be more transparent and accountable for negative human rights impacts in recent years. And between the UN’s efforts, activist movements, investigative journalism—and research like the Operational Grievance Mechanism Project—the push for corporate accountability is stronger than ever before.

To access the Operational Grievance Mechanism Research and Monitoring Project findings, please contact project director Lisa Laplante.