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Coming closer this month: a UN Human Rights Treaty for corporate abuses
1st July 2015
This month the UN is meeting to enact binding global rules on the conduct of business and transnational corporations, writes Sam Cossar-Gilbert, reversing the trend for increasing business empowerment in TTP, TTIP and TISA. The new UN Human Rights Treaty aims to provide justice for the victims of corporate criminality anywhere in the world.
While companies have the 'right' to defend their profits regardless of the circumstances, no parallel mechanisms currently exist at the international level to deal with their human rights violations or to ensure access to justice for their victims.
On 27 February, Indra Pelani, a young farmer and environmental defender from Indonesia was brutally murdered by the security force of a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper, an Indonesian company with a long history of conflict in the region.
Indra is not a lone victim of such corporate abuse. In 2014, more than 116 environmental and land defenders were killed worldwide, according to the international NGO Global Witness.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg; there are thousands of victims of human rights abuses that never get to tell their story, and some of the biggest companies in the world are implicated in these abuses. Yet those responsible are rarely held accountable.
But in July 2015, after decades of struggle by communities across the world, the idea that corporations should be held legally liable and criminally responsible for their crimes, no matter where they may occur, is finally being considered by the United Nations.
From 6-10 July a historic UN meeting will take place, beginning the process of establishing new and binding rules on transnational corporations and other business enterprises, and bringing justice to thousands of victims.
It will be the first session of the new Inter Governmental Working Group, where ambassadors from all UN member countries will decide the scope, content and form of this new Human Rights Treaty.
The Treaty has the support of more than 800 organisations, the UN Human Rights Council, the Vatican and many diverse governments including those of South Africa, Indonesia, India, China and Ecuador.
Justice is needed
Environmental activists and the communities we work with in the global South often face the threat of injury and death just for standing up for their rights. A new case of corporate violence against environmental rights defenders is reported to Friends of the Earth International on average once a week.
The Niger Delta is a prime example of the massive social and environmental impacts arising from corporate impunity. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Ogoni leader Ken Saro Wiwa in prison, for resisting oil extraction by Shell. French petrol company Total continues to use the damaging practice of gas flaring to this day, even though this practice has been officially illegal in Nigeria since 1984.
Since 2010, Wilmar International has grabbed tens of thousands of hectares of Nigerian land for palm oil plantations, destroying livelihoods and dispossessing local communities.
Currently many of these corporate crimes go unpunished due to the corruption of local legal systems and the fact that many corporations are richer and more powerful than the states that seek to regulate them. Of the world's 100 largest economic entities (including nation states), 37 are corporations.
Traditionally, international law focuses on the role and responsibilities of states, rather than corporations. Human rights abuses arising from the cross-border activities of corporations is the largest gap in international law. In our globalised world, companies operate between different national jurisdictions and are often able to take advantage of this situation to escape accountability.
The new Human Rights Treaty will seek to address these gaps in international law, in order to bring justice to victims like those in the Niger Delta.
The forces for and against
The strongest opponents of a binding Human Rights Treaty have been big business, the United States administration and European governments, which have threatened to boycott the process altogether.
The US ambassador stated that "we hold deep concern" and that the Treaty would "only be binding on the states that became party to it." Business lobby groups have argued that a treaty will be too complex and lengthy, and is generally not necessary because, they argue, companies take their Corporate Social Responsibilities very seriously today. The evidence, however, indicates otherwise.
Similar to the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, the process will no doubt take years to finalise and ratify. Yet while setting up a Treaty would take time, it would also have the power to change millions of lives and set new global norms in the longer-term.
The new Human Rights Treaty will build on other processes like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but will move beyond their voluntary character and provide an essential enforcement mechanism, amongst other major steps forward.
While some European countries are doing everything in their power to block progress on this treaty, others, who view themselves as the founders of modern human rights, are starting to engage in the process.
In March this year, for example, the French Parliament passed a national law that would hold French corporations with more than 5,000 employees responsible for human rights abuses they commit anywhere in the world.
Special rights for corporations
At the other end of the spectrum, corporate rights are very well protected internationally, through various binding international agreements such as free trade and investment agreements, and especially through the investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in those treaties.
ISDS enables foreign corporations to sue governments for billions of dollars in private and often secret tribunals, whenever they feel that their profits are negatively affected by new laws or changes in policy.
For example, in El Salvador Australian-Canadian gold mining company Pacific Rim, accused of human rights abuses, used ISDS to sue the government for US$301 million because the president decided to stop issuing mining permits after water supplies were polluted. During protests against the mine several environmental activists were murdered and to this day families of the victims are still demanding justice.
While companies have the 'right' to defend their profits regardless of the circumstances, no parallel mechanisms currently exist at the international level to deal with their human rights violations or to ensure access to justice for the victims of their activities.
We need rights for people and rules for business, and this first meeting of the Inter Governmental Working Group at the UN will be a key step forward in that process. We will closely observe these talks and will not shy away from exposing the opponents of a binding Human Rights Treaty.
Sam Cossar-Gilbert is Economic Justice / Resisting Neoliberalism Coordinator at Friends of the Earth International. He tweets @samcossar.
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