If today’s ubiquitous feel-good corporate advertisements are to be believed, big business wants nothing more than to improve the lives of all the world’s peoples. A very different perspective appears in a 68-page report recently submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The study—prepared by the Corporate Accountability Working Group of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) with the assistance of 40 non-government organizations from around the world—describes more than 150 cases in which “business enterprises have had significant impacts upon the enjoyment of all types of human rights.” The report ends with a series of recommendations for more effective United Nations action on these problems.
LABOR RIGHTS – Allegations of child labor at Bridgestone rubber plantations in Liberia. Allegations of the use of forced labor by Brazil’s Amaggi Group in clearing fields for soybean production. Charges that companies such as Wal-Mart and Toyota violated trade union rights of workers. Reports that workers in Indonesian sneaker factories supplying firms such as Nike “received minimal compensation while working in humiliating conditions and living in extreme poverty” (p.7). Various cases of unsafe working conditions, gender discrimination and race discrimination.
ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS – Reports of high rates of infant mortality, birth defects, childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer in areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon where Texaco (now Chevron) operated between 1964 and 1992. Charges that a mine owned by Placer Dome in the Philippines “caused severe pollution of the sea, bay and rivers, slowly poisoning people and their food source” (p.11). Reports that AngloGold Ashanti contaminated water supplies used by people living near its mining operations in Ghana.
RIGHT TO LIBERTY & SECURITY OF PERSONS – Reports that private security contractors such as Blackwater have killed and wounded innocent civilians in Iraq. Cases in which companies such as Occidental Petroleum allegedly provided logistical support for the Colombian Air Force in an attack on a local village. Numerous cases in which companies supported abusive governments.
RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES – Allegations that the rights of the Shuar people in Ecuador were violated when Arco Oriente, and later Burlington Resources, “disregarded the objections of the community’s elected leadership to the company’s petroleum exploration activities” (p.18).
RIGHT TO HOUSING – “The homes of the Grand Bassa community in Liberia were demolished, according to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), its farms and crops destroyed, ancestral burial plots and secret shrines desecrated in order to provide for the operations of Liberia Agriculture Company” (p.21).
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND RIGHT TO INFORMATION – Charges that Western internet companies such as Yahoo assisted Chinese authorities in investigating dissidents. Allegations that Electricité de France “failed to provide complete assessment studies on potentially serious impacts from the construction of the Nam Theun Dam” in Laos (p.26).
RIGHT TO AN EFFECTIVE REMEDY – Numerous cases in which victims of corporate abuses were unable to obtain remedy in their national courts. Charges in Brazil that “Shell had not undertaken activities ordered by a judge at the federal court…to stop dumping chemical waste, clean up contaminated areas, decontaminate drinking water sources and take steps to protect workers’ health” (p.31).
Given the multitude of cases cited by the Working Group report, the amount of detail provided on each is quite limited (though there are ample endnotes). Nonetheless, the document serves as a veritable encyclopedia of the many ways in which corporate activities around the world—especially in poorer countries—can undermine the broad economic, social and civil rights of various populations. This is not a report about which companies will issue press releases to highlight their inclusion.
Note: An excellent resource for tracking abuses of the sort mentioned in this report is the website of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.