Legal mobilization through consumer boycott and the lawfare backlash

Consumer boycott

On 18 May 2018, ISS researcher and participant in the EUR-sponsored INFAR Project, Dr Jeff Handmaker will give a talk at the 2018 Conference of the Utrecht Centre for Accountability and Liability Law.

This year, the UCALL conference will focus on “The legal battle against lawful products or services that are potentially threatening to human health”.

Handmaker’s paper acknowledges that human rights violations committed by corporate actors are a challenge for civic actors and government regulators alike. Voluntary compliance schemes, reinforced by slick media campaigns, can be abused by corporations; keen to give the impression that they are in compliance with international law and human rights, while their actual business activities reveal an overt hostility to international regulation.

Responding to this accountability gap, public interest lawyers, together with social movement groups and other civic actors, have developed consumer boycott campaigns, seeking to hold corporations directly accountable. This has resulted in some normative advances, but civic actors have also faced a backlash by some governments and corporations keen to halt these forms of law-based advocacy.

Handmaker’s paper presents an analytical framework for evaluating how law can be strategically instrumentalized by civic actors to try and hold corporations accountable, and to compel States to regulate. This instrumental use of law, or what he characterizes as legal mobilization has two characteristics; it is a term to describe the practice of legal advocacy; it is also a useful analytical and interdisciplinary lens to understand both the normative and functional dimensions of progressive forms of law-based civic advocacy.

In this light, a clear distinction should be made between legal mobilization and other forms of legal instrumentalism, namely lawfare (oppressive forms of legal instrumentalism). In this paper, Handmaker will draw on legal claims to hold corporations accountable for violations of international law in Palestine, which provide vivid illustrations of both these forms of legal instrumentalism.