Saturday, July 12, 2014

UN to outlaw corporations' human rights abuses

By Lucia Ortiz, Ecologist

The United Nations has voted to legislate against human rights abuses carried out by transnational corporations, reports Lucia Ortiz. But the resolution, proposed by Ecuador and South Africa, was opposed by the US and the member states of the EU.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva has voted to start elaborating an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of Transnational Corporations with respect to human rights.

The resolution passed last week with 20 states in favor, 14 against and 13 abstaining at the 26th session of the UNHRC. Among those voting against were the US and EU states.

More than 80 nations and 600+ organisations support the UN resolution, which should bring about a legally binding treaty on businesses and human rights.

A 'voluntary framework' is not good enough

In September 2013, a declaration led by Ecuador and supported by more than 80 countries, states the need to move from voluntary guidelines for business on human rights to a legal framework to bring transnational corporations to justice for their human rights violations.

The resolution, tabled by Ecuador and South Africa, was finally voted on at the UNHRC last week. Most importantly, it:

"Decides to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group on a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, the mandate of which shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises."

EU and US - corporations more important than people

The strongest opponents of the resolution were EU states and the US, which also actively lobbied other countries to side with them, threatening them with loss of development aid and foreign direct investment.

The US delegate stated that "this legally binding instrument will not be binding for those who vote against it", exposing the US disrespect for the democratic UN process as well as its opposition to binding rules to address corporate abuses.

Many countries felt they did not have a choice. "We vote with the EU, if we do not, it can become very unpleasant for us", the representative of a UNHRC country which is a candidate for EU membership told Friends of the Earth International ahead of the vote.

This victory for those who defend the environment, human rights and sustainable livelihoods from the human rights violations by big business would not have been possible without the coordinated work by civil society networks and social movements united in advocacy and mobilization efforts from the grassroots to the international level.

Friends of the Earth International and many other civil society organisations have campaigned for decades for binding standards to hold corporations accountable where and when they commit environmental crimes and human right violations.

Multinationals on trial at the Peoples Tribunal

A special session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal just took place in Geneva and included a 'trial' of the companies Shell, Mekorot, Hidralia, Glencore Xtrata, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Lonmin and Pacific Rim.

The companies were accused of specific human right abuses, systemic and systematic violation of human rights, and increasing criminalization and violence against human rights and environmental defenders.

The fact that the Permanent Peoples Tribunal has to present a moral judgment to make these cases of human rights violations visible confirms that existing voluntary approaches are woefully inadequate for dealing with ongoing corporate violations and systemic denial of access to justice for the victims.

Defenders of the environment often face terrible consequences for their actions, suffering rights violations and violence, according to a new report by Friends of the Earth International released on June 26.

[See report: 'To defend the environment, we must defend human rights' on The Ecologist.]

Corporate violence against rights defenders is routine

A new case of corporate violence against environmental rights defenders and violations of their rights is reported to Friends of the Earth International on average once a week, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Friends of the Earth International recorded more than 100 incidents of violence against environmental rights defenders and violations of their rights in 27 countries around the world in the period November 2011 - October 2013, according to the report.

More than half of the killings recorded by Friends of the Earth International between November 2011 and October 2013 were targeted assassinations of peasant leaders and deaths of peasants during violent confrontations regarding land disputes.

These often involved the protection of peasant territories from polluting development projects such as hydroelectric dams, monoculture plantations or the extraction of oil, gas and minerals.

Environmental defenders deserve and demand a legally binding treaty to bring corporations to justice. But they also demand community access to justice, right to protest, reparation and restoration of damaged environmental and livelihoods, and criminal liability for corporate offenders.

EU: 'a binding treaty will discourage voluntary action'

Delegates from the EU and Norway were reported as stating that the longer we speak about the need for a binding treaty, the more companies are discouraged from taking voluntary action.

We believe the opposite: the longer we delay a binding treaty, the longer companies will continue to act with impunity, and the more environmental defenders rights are abused.

This is why we will not stop our advocacy work at the UN and in our capitals until the establishment of an international legally binding regime that will allow us to hold corporations accountable for their human rights abuses.

UN to outlaw corporations' human rights abuses