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What is a grievance mechanism?

A grievance mechanism is a formal, legal or non-legal (or ‘judicial/non-judicial’) complaint process that can be used by individuals, workers, communities and/or civil society organisations that are being negatively affected by certain business activities and operations.

Grievance mechanisms are also called ‘dispute’, ‘complaints’ and 'accountability' mechanisms. SOMO’s Human Rights & Grievance Mechanisms programme focuses on non-judicial grievance mechanisms.

What types of grievance mechanisms exist?

A wide variety of grievance mechanisms exist at the project, company, sector, national, regional and intergovernmental levels. They vary in objective, approach, target groups, composition and government backing. They also vary in how long the procedure can take to conclude and whether there are any costs involved. They may be set up by companies, financial institutions, organisations at the interstate level or at the international level. Some mechanisms directly address companies while others address states' responsibility to protect citizens against human rights violations by third parties.

The manner in which grievance mechanisms deal with complaints also varies widely. Some are designed to resolve problems through dialogue-based, problem-solving methods like mediation. Others conduct investigations or fact-finding that lead to recommendations or statements. Finally, some mechanisms are mandated to attach consequences to their findings, such as delisting, withdrawing funds or exclusing access to government benefits.

What are the costs of using grievance mechanisms?

Grievance mechanisms do not typically charge fees, and some may provide financial assistance to complainants to help them engage in the process. However, the process of filing a complaint with a grievance mechanism can still be costly for complainants. However, given the wide variety of mechanisms that exist, it is difficult to provide estimates of how much filing a complaint with a grievance mechanism could cost.

Whether you are a group of affected individuals or an organisation, preparing a complaint will require an investment of your financial and human resources. After the complaint has been filed, you will need the resources to coordinate with the affected individuals and any local, regional or international partners. You may have to respond to requests for additional research and information, which could incur further costs. In addition, you may have to cover travel expenses to participate in meetings. Despite these expenses, filing a complaint with a grievance mechanism is usually still cheaper than taking legal action.

Using non-judicial grievance mechanisms in case of company human rights violations

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For more information, see the brochure on non-judicial grievance mechanisms outlining the types of mechanisms, how they function, and what their limitations are.