Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP, is one of several retaliatory mechanisms increasingly used against defenders of human rights—protesters, activists, even human rights lawyers.

It is intended, as the non-profit organization Business and Human Rights Resource Centre soberly reminds us, to “silence, intimidate, or punish those who have used public forums" to bring to attention matters that go against a business, government or individual.

Frequent recourse to libel and defamation suits, the Resource Centre says, moves “the public debate away from human rights issues originally raised, and toward a litigious battle between two parties with vastly different financial resources". This, of course, may be in addition to “threats of death, arrest or physical harm when they speak out against abuses by companies".

The Resource Centre discusses these and other matters and provides a global situation report in its 2013 annual briefing on corporate legal accountability released earlier this week. Its A to V list of case studies—beginning with sporting goods major Adidas and ending with Vinci, the French construction company—contains recent and ongoing accusations and legal debates of various kinds of human rights violations from relatively mild to mayhem, attributed to a total of 52 companies across the world.

It is of little surprise that human rights lawyers and activists would get SLAPPed about, as it were, or face the legal weight of businesses that far outweigh their own. The stakes, both in perception and finance, are immense.

It would hardly do to have as curriculum vitae, as Anvil Mining Ltd does, allegations that “several advocates, plaintiffs and witnesses were threatened with violence and death"—the briefing paper mentions, in the course of proceedings against Anvil in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Canada-based company, acquired by China Minmetals Corp. in 2012, runs a copper mine in that country. Danzer AG, a Swiss lumber and timber conglomerate, also faces allegations in the Congo of a company official providing “logistical and financial help to Congolese police during an attack on a village", one during which “the police raped and injured villagers and destroyed homes and other property".

In South Africa, 30 gold mining companies are up against a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 15,000 former miners suffering from silicosis. Under legal scrutiny too are the deaths by police firing of 44 during a strike at Lonmin Plc’s mine in South Africa, in 2012. Former executives of Ford Motor Co. in Argentina, and Daimler AG are facing charges of complicity in human rights violations after a right wing military coup in 1976. Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BASF SE are fresh from reaching a settlement with plaintiffs in Brazil over contamination of groundwater and land caused by a pesticide plant that first Shell, and later BASF, owned.

Closer home in Asia, the Resource Centre’s briefing paper details that in March 2013 some villagers in Cambodia filed a lawsuit against Tate and Lyle Plc and T&L Sugars Ltd (a subsidiary of American Sugar Refining Inc) in a British court: “The plaintiffs allege that Tate & Lyle purchased raw sugar from two companies (Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar Industry) that grew the sugar on land from which they were violently and illegally evicted in 2006."

Bangladesh gets a dishonourable mention on account of the Rana Plaza disaster in April this year that killed over 1,100 workers and injured many more. India clocks in with two high profile instances, bypassing dozens of notably dubious and downright inhuman practices by several companies: that of Vedanta Resources Plc in its battle to procure bauxite mining rights in Odisha, and Dow Chemical Co. over ongoing petitions to redress the complaints of victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, a liability that activists maintain Dow inherited after its purchase of Union Carbide Corp.

Alongside the laundry list of alleged or proven corporate infamy that includes some of the best known names in the world, the briefing adds directional value by flagging issues that it expects will affect this space. “Looking ahead, we expect to see further efforts to use criminal law (domestic and international) to hold businesses accountable for human rights abuses," states the Resource Centre. “In addition, human rights NGOs and legal groups are paying increasing attention to the role of law and lawyers in tax avoidance, and its impact on human rights."

This is happening, and will happen, in countries where infractions and crimes are perceived as being committed; and in countries where such businesses are headquartered or invested.

I told you so.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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