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Prosecuting governments and businesses

Some estimates peg the number of those displaced by projects from the mid-1950s on to as much as 60 million with most mired in the 'backlog' of resettlement

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, The Hague, Netherlands-based organization announced in mid-September that it will prioritize “national" crimes “such as the illegal exploitation of natural resources, arms trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism, financial crimes, land grabbing or the destruction of the environment".

A permanent international court that was born after the Rome Statute was signed by 120 countries, and made effective from 2002, ICC will now track “increased vulnerability of victims, the terror subsequently instilled, or the social, economic and environmental damage inflicted on the affected communities". And it specifically mentioned “illegal dispossession of land" that numerous governments around world, including in India, conduct to hand over such land to both private and state-run businesses, which often results in citizens being forcibly evicted.

This is an extension of ICC’s repertoire of investigating matters like genocide, war crimes, and institutionalized “crimes against humanity".

There’s been some jubilation and discussion. Even as it cautioned against a perceived bias of ICC prosecuting Africans over others, the pan-African journal Pambazuka News exulted: “Haul all land grabbers, polluters and resource thieves to The Hague." UK’s The Guardian quoted Richard Rogers, a partner of criminal law firm Global Diligence, on his docking with ICC a case on behalf of 10 Cambodian citizens against the country’s rulers, alleging they violated rights in order to grab land, that has since 2002 led to the eviction of 350,000 citizens. “Cambodia is a perfect example for this new ICC focus," Rogers was quoted as saying.

There is a significant niggle with India: it’s not a signatory to ICC, so it will be difficult for Indians to drag Indian government agencies, companies and individuals to ICC. (Or Pakistanis, or citizens of several other countries in South Asia, as these countries have refrained from signing on.) In 2005 the legal researcher and advocate of human rights in business, Usha Ramanathan, wrote in the Journal of International Criminal Justice that India’s establishment couldn’t reorient to “an international community that willingly hands over a mandate for justicing to an institution beyond the territory, amending ability and influence of the individual state".

Ramanathan wrote of “uneasy silences that inhabit the law’s experience" over recent “tales of impunity", like the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and the Gujarat riots of 2002. To these I would add the earlier genocide in Naga areas, in Mizoram, the ongoing mess in Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir, the ‘collateral damage’ of civilians in the war against Maoist rebels.

Some estimates peg the number of those displaced by projects from the mid-1950s on to as much as 60 million—over 40% of these being tribal folk—with most mired in the ‘backlog’ of resettlement. There have been hundreds of fatalities on account of police and paramilitaries attacking those resisting land acquisition and loss of livelihood; and uncountable injuries and instances of intimidation.

But the Indian judicial system and activists have shown teeth from time to time. Better laws are slowly being put in place even as terrible laws are criticized by increasingly vocal groups of citizens—and victims of such laws. The Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the disbanding of the vigilante group Salwa Judum—it couldn’t well order the disbanding of its sponsors, the governments of Chhattisgarh and India—reducing the volume of atrocity. In March 2015, Delhi high court stood by Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai when she took the government to court for offloading her from a flight to London that January for “anti-national activities". Pillai was to discuss alleged human rights violations by Mahan Coal Ltd, a joint venture of Essar Power Ltd and Hindalco Industries Ltd in Madhya Pradesh, with a committee of legislators in the UK. In May 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition by Odisha’s mining facilitator which challenged the entirely legal decision of village councils to deny it rights to acquire land to mine bauxite for a controversial Vedanta Plc. project.

It shows the presence of justice and remedy, even if seemingly infinitesimal in India’s vast ocean of injustices; and an imperfect democracy which citizens are determined to mend. In ICC signatory Cambodia, or such parts of Africa, citizens often have no recourse except to go overseas for justice.

And, in any case, several Indian businesses have invested in, and have been accused of being beneficiaries of official land grabs and forced evictions in several African countries. Such businesses might still have their day at ICC.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, will now run on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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