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79 Kenyans seek justice in UK high court on human rights abuses

Local Kenyan agricultural cultivation and manufacturing company Kakuzi PLC (Kakuzi) is facing human rights abuse allegations for actions carried out between 2009 and 2020. A case against the company’s majority owner, Camellia PLC (Camellia), has been brought in the United Kingdom High Court in London by 79 Kenyans represented by law firm Leigh Day. The case is being brought with the support of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO).

The 79 complainants include former employees of Kakuzi, and women and girls who were raped by the company guards after being caught collecting wood on the firm’s land. Some are said to have contracted HIV or have become pregnant as a result. Camellia employs 78,000 people worldwide and says it is the largest avocado producer in Kenya, which according to the International Trade Centre is Africa’s biggest avocado exporter. Camellia’s operations in Africa include: Kakuzi, Eastern Produce Kenya, Eastern Produce Malawi, Eastern Produce Cape (South Africa) and Eastern Produce Tanzania.

In investigations spanning three years, Kakuzi appeared to be closely monitored and controlled by its parent company Camellia.

After three years of investigations, Camellia is accused of turning a blind eye to systematic human rights abuses by Kakuzi employees - including rape, killings, attacks, false imprisonment and abuse. Leigh Day has lodged the case against Camellia because of the firm’s close supervision of Kakuzi. This suit may result in Camellia being ordered to pay a large fine and provide reparations to victims if the court finds for the 79 Kenyan claimants.

In response to the abuse allegations, Kakuzi asked the chief prosecutor to investigate alleged crimes on its estates. In addition, Kakuzi urged the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) in Kenya to investigate the allegations and “take actions in accordance with the law”.

These claims have prompted Camellia to take urgent action to review and, if appropriate, upgrade the group’s governance and safeguarding oversight functions to ensure that in every respect they comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In addition, Camellia says it is also making changes to its governance policies and processes which will be implemented by its subsidiaries, and are aimed at dealing more effectively with future abuse cases. The UK’s supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and Germany’s discount grocer Lidl confirmed in emailed responses to the Business Daily that they had suspended any dealings with Kakuzi pending investigations into the allegations.The actions by Sainsbury’s and Lidl came barely a week after Britain’s largest supermarket, Tesco, temporarily dropped Kakuzi as its supplier of avocados pending investigations.

Protect, Respect, Remedy: these are three pillars of the voluntary uniform framework set by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) - endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011- which define and allocate responsibilities in relation to human rights between States and businesses.

In the context of the new international order characterised -amongst other factors- by the existence of a global market in which businesses become international actors, the UNGPs spell out that the protection of human rights needs to be reoriented to facilitate the acknowledgement of the role and liability of new potential abusers (businesses). April 2020, the EU Commission announced the introduction, by 2021, of a European legal framework for both the due diligence obligations of business to prevent and mitigate business impacts on human rights and the environment, and access to remedy mechanisms forcing parent companies to take responsibility for the behaviour of its affiliated companies and supply chains in third countries.

In a similar case in September 2015, A group of 1826 Zambian villagers from the city of Chingola brought proceedings in the English courts against Vedanta Resources Plc (Vedanta), a UK incorporated parent company, and Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM), its Zambian subsidiary, claiming that waste discharged from the Nchanga copper mine - owned and operated by KCM - had polluted the local waterways, causing personal injury to the local residents, as well as damage to property and loss of income. The claims are founded in negligence, although the allegations also relate to breaches of applicable Zambian environmental laws.

On the 13th of October 2017, the Court of Appeal dismissed the companies' appeal and allowed the villagers to pursue their claim in the UK. In March 2018, the companies were granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. On the 10th of April 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the Zambian villagers' case against Vedanta Resources can be heard in English courts.

The Camellia case will be a landmark for many victims of abuse by multinational companies. This will help to increase accountability by these companies and their subsidiaries. It will also ensure justice for the communities who have been affected by multinational operations over a number of years. This will serve as an example to other corporations to implement human rights practices within their operations and to take human rights of their staff and communities around them very seriously.

By Diana Mochoge (Africa Project Coordinator), and Christopher Watkins (Legal Fellow)

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