José showed me photos of his brother Hipólito, a community leader who was recently murdered for standing up to defend the community’s rights to their land. Over 150 people have been killed in this struggle over palm oil plantations, as the farmers face off against powerful companies. These companies are exporting palm oil around the world, and this lucrative commodity is used for so many of our everyday products, including in our breakfast cereals, snacks, cosmetics and shampoos.
Yet at the same time, companies in Ireland don’t have to check for human rights impacts like what we are seeing in the Aguán valley, whether it is related to Palm Oil or other industries. It is quite incredible that Irish and EU companies are under no obligations to assess the impact of their global operations, their value chains, their subsidiaries or the use of their products for environmental damage or human rights abuses.
So, if I set up a company tomorrow and decided to import palm oil from Honduras to make biscuits, I’m under no legal requirement to check to see if that palm oil has come from land which has been stolen from communities where environmental defenders are being murdered.
Similarly, if I decide to source garments from South East Asia created under conditions of modern slavery, or source gadgets where the lithium for batteries has been mined using child labour in Africa, I can turn a blind eye and no one will stop me. Also, if I want to sell surveillance technology to repressive regimes, I don’t have to ask any questions about how my product will be used.
Corporations have been effectively allowed to police themselves and voluntary approaches are simply not working. This is truly an absurd situation.
However, change is coming. The EU is currently developing new sustainability and human rights obligations for companies. This draft new Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive has the potential to be a game changer in preventing corporations from exploiting people and damaging the environment. It could clean up corporate value chains and allow victims of harm to take companies to court in Europe.
However, we are worried that this crucial piece of legislation could be seriously weakened before a final deal is reached by the EU institutions in the coming months. EU Member States have agreed that they want to weaken the directive, for it not to apply to the financial sector, and to shield companies producing pesticides, weapons or surveillance technology from scrutiny for the harms their products and services create.
Yet our MEPs in the European Parliament have the chance now to rescue this piece of legislation. In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will vote on this key directive. Irish MEPs have the opportunity to vote in favour of a strong proposal which is currently on the table. While not perfect, the proposal will give the European Parliament a strong hand to defend the directive from being weakened further in the final negotiations between the EU institutions in the coming months.
I hope our MEPs rescue this law and stand with the exploited, the voiceless and the dispossessed. Maybe then I can put away the placards, megaphones and face paints, and the communities I met in Honduras will be able to achieve some form of justice.