I recently attended a workshop held at the UK Law society in London, to discuss the topic of Transactional Corporate Human Rights abuses, hosted by CORE and the BIICL. It was a fascinating afternoon and certainly went in-depth into the subject. Needless to say, there was a lot to take in and I am grappling with what to cover in a single blog.
Given the weight and breadth of the discussions, what struck me most is this need for corporations, governments and in some respects civil society to embrace a paradigm shift. There needs to be a desire coupled with enforceable regulation for companies to behave in a more morally responsible way. But haven’t we been there before?
We can’t deny that multinational companies are powerful economic operations – with annual turnovers larger than some countries’ gross product. They operate in multiple countries-both directly and indirectly, for example through subsidiaries, commercial partnerships. If anything, their supply chain impacts are likely to have significant global reach. Multinationals have access to political and financial power, thereby raising specific challenges to those sectors in society that do not have rights to effective remedies.
The Bhopal disaster was recalled, in which a plant gas leak lead to an unfathomable and still growing number of victims. Thirty years of litigation and justice has not been for the affected families. But the tragedy is that over 30 years of litigation has still not prevented those continuing to suffer the consequences of their exposure to the toxic gases today. Bhopal was owned and operated by UCIL, majority owned by US based UCC. Today it is a wholly owned subsidiary of US based Dow Chemical Group. For further discussion around the Bhopal tragedy and developments in Indian law following this event, take a look at a previous blog we published here.
There are several other cases, some more high profile than others, including Omai, Trafigura, OK Tedi Gold and Copper mine in Papua New Guinea.
In each case the multinational corporations involved employed double standards in their use and promotion of international law.
The fact is that there are legal and jurisdictional obstacles that are needed to overcome corporate involvement in human rights abuses.
Amnesty’s book ‘Injustice Incorporated’ provides a detailed analysis on what is needed to protect public interest and the international human rights framework.
Together with other members of the panel, ideas were raised on how greater access to remedy could be attained. An underlying assumption is that corporations should apply the UNGPs to ensure that they undertake a human rights assessment of their activities and implement both policies and procedures to address any abuses. It’s clear that many companies, although making statements in their corporate reports, are not properly implementing their policies. It might be because they don’t know how, or simply don’t want to spend the resource in achieving what is required.
Some radical suggestions were put forward nonetheless:
– making parent or controlling companies legally responsible for human rights abuses arising in their global operations
– eliminating forum non conveniente, which would deny courts the power to dismiss a case based on the notion that another forum is more suitable
– ensuring international cooperation and assistance
So, what next? Will we see these suggestions taking hold? Will the shift that’s so needed come about or will we find ourselves in the same place by the time next year’s conference on these issues takes place?
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