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Challenging corporate harm during the Coronavirus

21 July 2020

Ireland’s new government has committed to take action on businesses respecting human rights. As corporate abuse is on the increase and human rights defenders are being murdered during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trócaire is calling for Ireland to put business and human rights high on the agenda.

Honduran human rights defender Maria Felicita Lopez (31) Photo: Simon Burch

As the Coronavirus has spread around the world, it has been alarming to see governments using emergency measures as a smokescreen to continue targeting human rights defenders.

Some governments are sending a clear message to communities - profiting from the extraction of natural resources will take precedence over public health, human rights and the environment.

In many of the countries we work in, the Coronavirus has only exacerbated the challenges faced by those struggling against corporate abuses of human rights and the environment. During the biggest global health threat in recent times, defenders continue to be attacked and are even more vulnerable, as their movement is restricted and police and military presence has increased.

At least five defenders of the environment have been killed in different Latin American countries since the pandemic began. In Honduras, campesina leader Iris Argentina Álvarez was murdered during a forced eviction carried out by security guards from the "La Grecia” sugar company.

Michel Forst, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has described defenders as ‘sitting ducks’ during lockdown.

A lack of corporate accountability

The business models that we currently have need to be transformed. They result in the destruction of communities, killings, smear campaigns and judicial harassment of human rights defenders. These same business models are harming the environment and threatening public health.

As we face into a global recession, there is a danger of standards being lowered even further by governments in order to attract investment. For example, through fast-tracking projects without adequate consultation with local communities.

There is a longstanding lack of legislation that is being abused by irresponsible businesses. They are not being held to account for their investments, actions, or the actions of their subsidiaries overseas.  

Experts from the UN, WHO and WWF are echoing calls from indigenous human rights defenders for legislation and trade deals worldwide to encourage a green recovery.

At a demonstration in Honduras prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Juana Zuniga (38) speaks out about the injustice of 8 community members from the village of Guapinol being imprisoned without trial for defending their river from a mining company. Many human rights defenders' trials are now taking place behind closed doors during lockdown. This means nobody can monitor the fairness of the trial. Photo : Giulia Vuillermoz / Trócaire.

A different vision

The corporate abuses happening during the pandemic are a sharp reminder of the need for legally binding regulation of business. Respecting human rights should not be voluntary or optional.

However, we now have a unique moment where change may be possible. Plans for recovery after COVID-19 provide an opportunity to build a sustainable business model that is centred in human rights.

Rather than standing by while unscrupulous companies take advantage of the pandemic, this is a moment for states to ensure that responsible business conduct is rewarded. Those that profit from human rights and environmental violations should be held to account.

In recent months, we have had a chance to see the world with a new perspective. We have heard political leaders espousing the need for solidarity, for public health provision and for the importance of a strong welfare state. In this spirit, it is now time for states to stop irresponsible businesses that are harming communities and the environment.

Thankfully, many states are already moving in this direction. France has a law to ensure corporations respect human rights and the environment in all their overseas operations. A range of other European countries look to be following suit.

The European Commission has committed to legislation that would protect human rights and the environment. This would be done through what is called human rights and environmental due diligence. This would be a mandatory obligation for EU companies.

Human rights due diligence is when a business embeds human rights in its operations. It involves assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed. It is simply like human rights proofing and then acting on the findings. If done well, it can have a significant impact on preventing human rights abuses.

Time for Ireland to take action

Trócaire is looking to our Government to move with the EU momentum and develop Irish legislation on human rights due diligence. Putting business and human rights high on the political agenda for this new Government is vitally important and overdue.

Significantly, the new Programme for Government commits to review whether there is a need for greater emphasis on mandatory due diligence in relation to business and human rights. This is a very positive indication, and we need to see action on this commitment.

We have relied on corporations to voluntarily change their practices, while communities on the front lines face forced evictions, pollution of their lands, loss of livelihoods, attacks, smear campaigns and arbitrary detention.

In our recovery from this pandemic, we should change this approach and insist on legally binding regulation.

If we are to Build Back Better, we have to protect the land, environmental and indigenous defenders, who are already protecting all of us.

Learn more and get involved in our ‘Build Back Better’ campaign

Siobhan Curran is Trócaire’s Policy & Advocacy Advisor on Human Rights & Democratic Space