Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Human rights: who, what, where?

It’s good practice for corporate accountability, corporate social responsibility and human rights practitioners to take stock. See what is happening in their region and around the world. Two reports that arrived in September offer insights into such developments and trends.

First off, I would flag the latest Corporate Legal Accountability Quarterly Bulletin from the UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre—required reading in an increasingly globalized world of human rights liability and fallouts of too-clever-by-half public relations.

The September bulletin offers a typically no-nonsense round-up of ongoing case studies from around the world. These are relevant to India on account of local presence of such industry or business, activities of India-based transnational companies in such areas, besides potential liability for human rights abuses in one form or another across the board.

An illustration discusses how three influential non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taken French retailer Groupe Auchan SA to court, alleging, as the bulletin puts it, “that Auchan lied to its customers about working conditions at its suppliers abroad after labels from its In Extenso clothing range were found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in April 2013". That episode killed more than 1,100 workers and injured several hundred. French courts are currently hearing the case. Auchan, meanwhile, claims it was a “victim of ‘concealed subcontracting’".

In today’s world of corporate responsibility and liability, that’s distance—but not enough distance.

Other instances are of varied pursuance—acceptance or dismissal. Global oil firms, including Chevron Corp. are being pressed in the US to disclose their practices in West Africa’s Niger Delta region—a conflict and human rights malpractice hotspot. Chiquita Brands International Inc., an American farm products company, faced a new case claiming its complicity in killings by Colombian paramilitaries. Though it was disallowed for trial in US courts, the suit arrived on account of a stain that won’t wash.

In 2007, Chiquita owned up to funding for several years a paramilitary organization in the banana growing belt of Colombia—by extension, admitting complicity in extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture. As the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre chillingly reminds us, “Chiquita settled a criminal complaint by the US Government at that time and agreed to pay a $25 million fine".

And, while a Swiss court in July rejected a claim against Nestlé SA for complicity in the murder of a Colombian trade union worker at a subsidiary, Cicolac, citing the statute of limitations, a US court in September allowed what is called an “Alien Tort" lawsuit against Nestlé. “Plaintiffs allege that they were trafficked from Mali as children," states the bulletin, “and forced to work on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire that supply Nestlé."

Such sobering reading extends to the document, Global Economy, Global Rights: A practitioners’ guide for interpreting human rights obligations in the global economy. It is published by the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or ESCR-Net, a global conglomerate of nearly 300 NGOs and advocacy groups. As Olivier De Schutter, a member of the UN’s committee on economic, social and cultural rights, maintains, “It documents the silent revolution that has taken place in recent years, as human rights doctrine has sought to adapt to the challenge posed by the ‘transnationalization’ of economic activities, and the resulting increased interdependence of States."

Simply put: states are responsible for the human rights violations of businesses headquartered in their territory. Such violations can be local as well as global.

The document draws on various UN treaties and obligations signed and ratified by member states, and several UN guidelines, including the landmark 2011 “Protect, Respect and Remedy" framework endorsed by the UN’s Human Rights Council. The framework governs the human rights behaviour of transnational and other businesses.

By way of example, ESCR’s report mentions that when news arrived that Posco India’s steel plant “would potentially force 20,000 people to leave their homes and land in Odisha State", accompanied by accusations of heavy-handed land acquisition, several UN officials formally wrote to Posco, South Korea, where Posco is headquartered, and India, where a subsidiary operates, reminding them of “extraterritorial obligations".

Odisha, India, South Korea and Posco have all downplayed accusations of human rights violations, adopting everything from aggressive public relations, partial truth and the importance of bilateral relations to push the project. That hasn’t stopped the red-flagging of the project as a human rights minefield—in reports, at the UN, and at any court willing to admit a plaint for wrongdoing.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia
that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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