In March of 2019, Trócaire launched their campaign for a binding treaty that aims to hold corporations accountable for breaches of human rights. I spoke with Siobhan Curran, Trócaire’s Policy and Advocacy Advisor – Human Rights and Democratic Space to find out what it’s all about and why it’s important.
Curran stated that the call for this campaign comes against the backdrop of the changing nature of business in a modern globalised economy.
“Human Rights abuses committed by corporations against ordinary persons is not necessarily new” she began when we spoke last November, “however, given the era in which we live and the growth of transnational corporations, the need for this treaty is more pertinent than ever”.
So it’s needed, and urgently, but why? And what exactly is it? The campaign’s purpose is to create legally binding regulations to regulate and create accountability for human rights abuses committed by large corporations. Some of the common abuses include; pollution of land, environmental degradation, intimidation and criminalisation of those who stand up against these violations , and in some cases, even murder.
“The trends are shocking and growing’ Curran continued. ‘there was 247 recorded killings last year (2018) with indigenous peoples being those commonly affected”.
The story of these abuses often follows a similar pattern. A powerful multi-national corporation moves into an area rich in natural resources and guts it of them , leaving behind a trail of destroyed and polluted land. All while funnelling the proceeds back into its base, usually in the first world.
This pattern is encapsulated in the case of Shell in Ogoniland in Nigeria. Between 1960 and 1990 it’s estimated that Shell Oil extracted $30 billion in oil from the region. The Ogoni people are among the poorest in Africa, with no running water or electricity. The process of extraction also caused major environmental damage, including water contamination. Upon protesting, Ken Saro Wiwa and eight colleagues were sentenced to death and hanged.
The power discrepancy couldn’t be much larger between the two main players in this strange transaction. Curran noted the worrying statistic that “69 of the top 100 global economic entities are companies”. This makes it difficult for indigenous communities to challenge them on a legal front in order to get justice. The current framework also doesn’t provide them with any help.
“One of the main problems is also the lack of access to legal remedies or legal recourse”.
On top of this, in the small number of cases where the corporation is found to have breached human rights, they fall back on the legal principle of separate legal personality, evading penalty. This principle allows large multinational parent companies to evade legal penalty for the breaches committed by their subsidiary, in these cases often in a third world country, because their subsidiary is seen as a ‘separate entity’. In April 2018, a British court ruled that the Nigerian communities in the Niger Delta could not sue Shell for the pollution caused by its subsidiary. In such cases often times the subsidiary is simply wound up, and the parent company doesn’t owe anything to the community they damaged. No justice is served.
From a business perspective, you may be disposed to ask the question – where’s the trade-off? Even if you accept the need for regulations on behalf of human rights, you may be inclined to see the issue as a balancing act between human rights on the one hand and business development on the other. Indeed, the Trócaire report on the topic ‘Making a Killing’: holding corporations to account for land and human rights violations noted that those on the front line trying to oppose projects such as the one in Nigeria are being labelled ‘anti-development’. For instance, Juana Esquivel, Director of Fundación san Alonso Rodriguez in Honduras, was targeted in a smear campaign when she supported activists fighting against the development of a mine in Guapinol, in Costa Rica. She was labelled ‘Anti – progress’.
Things get even more complicated in relation to social infrastructure projects, for example, the construction of a hydroelectric project in Río Blanco, Honduras, that would seem to provide development and jobs to the local communities.
Siobhán noted that these points were made at the foreign affairs committee meeting, however:
“In the cases that Trócaire are highlighting, the communities around these projects are not being benefited, instead the corporations themselves are. Rather than any benefit being accrued, this in fact creates the division of communities and the break-up of the social fabric of the community, which is something you can’t just get back”.
In addition, Siobhán explained that rather than seeing this as something that would curtail business, businesses that abide by human rights best practice should see this as a positive for business as a whole:
“Businesses that are sure they’re not breaching human rights are in favour of this and are in fact calling for regulations. They’re being undercut by those who are using human rights abuses to drive down costs”.
In short, the question isn’t really one of a trade-off at all. The benefits of this transaction are going one way, as large multi-national corporations use these areas to profit, while the comparatively powerless communities they invade have their hands tied. Reduced to fruitless protests.
“There is no societal set up in which we should allow these abuses to continue”
Another question is how a binding treaty would be any different from the UN guiding principles. The UN guiding principles provide a set of guidelines of how businesses should act in relation to human rights, but these are voluntary in nature. The Trócaire report noted implementation problems with the guiding principles, so how would a legally binding treaty be any more effective ?
“The treaty should complement the guiding principles, but we have to be realistic, voluntary commitments are not enough to hold these corporations to account, we need legally binding ones”
The crux of the issue is; if these corporations are willing to abuse human rights for commercial gain, they won’t abide by voluntary commitments – calls to morality are futile and only legal enforcements will have any effect.
So how can people get involved in this campaign, if they wish?
“We need young people to join the campaign. The treaty will need ratification from a large number of member states so we need states like Ireland to get on board and support. We need people to use their voice and talk to their politicians if possible, using any public space that you can really.”
Visit www.trocaire.org or check out their report ‘Making a Killing’: holding corporations to account for land and human rights violations for more information.
Photo from Trocaire Ireland
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