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Business and Human Rights

Will the EU listen to its citizens and put an end to corporate abuse of human rights?

We have the chance right now to influence a new EU law that could hold companies to account for human rights abuses. We are seeing land grabs, pollution of the environment, and the murder of activists who stand up to defend their rights against corporate greed. You can have your say to help make these abuses a thing of the past.

Honduran Human Rights Defender, Maria Felicita Lopez (31), mother. Photo: Simon Burch Honduran Human Rights Defender, Maria Felicita Lopez (31), mother. Photo: Simon Burch

In March 2016, Berta Cáceres was brutally murdered in her home, shot in her bedroom. Berta was one of the most prominent environmental defenders in Honduras and an inspiring advocate for human rights. She was defending her community and the environment, standing up to corporate exploitation, and she paid with her life.

A Honduran company was constructing a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, sacred to the local community. Berta and her community were against this development that would damage their river, and that was being implemented without their consent. The project had received millions of euro in funding from EU investors from the Netherlands and Finland.

The murder of Berta Cáceres is not a unique once-off event. It is part of a shocking pattern of killings of human rights defenders, with hundreds of people being killed every year for trying to stop corporations damaging their communities. Indeed in the final days of 2020, two more indigenous activists in Honduras were murdered for defending people and the planet from the actions of big business.

The involvement of EU corporate interests in the abuse of human rights is also not unique to Berta’s case. Companies and banks in the EU are having a devastating impact in countries when they invest in projects that disregard the rights of people who are most affected by these, as with Berta’s community.

One example is close to home, for decades the ESB in Ireland has bought coal from the notorious Cerrejón mine in Colombia. Communities next to the mine have suffered from chronic poor health, contaminated water, and have faced fear and intimidation when they have tried to oppose the multi-billion dollar mining industry. The UN expert on human rights and the environment has called the human rights situation at this mine as one of the most disturbing situations that he has encountered.

Research by Trinity College Dublin has also shown that Ireland is a base for the top five global software companies, 14 of the top 15 medical technology companies, 18 of the top 25 financial services companies, all of the top ten pharmaceuticals companies and eight of the top ten industrial automation companies. Yet 50% of companies in their recent study scored less than 20% on their human rights policies and practice, with 34% scoring zero on embedding respect for human rights and due diligence.

Essentially, business needs to be cleaned up when it comes to human rights and the environment. Corporations are not being held legally responsible for their actions and therefore continue to operate with no accountability while affected communities struggle for justice and compensation.

 

Austra Berta Flores Lopez (86) mother of murdered activist Berta Cáceres, and Agustina Flores Lopez (59) sister of Berta Cáceres, holding up her photo. Photo : Garry Walsh Austra Berta Flores Lopez (86) mother of murdered activist Berta Cáceres, and Agustina Flores Lopez (59) sister of Berta Cáceres, holding up her photo. Photo : Garry Walsh

New EU law is an opportunity to ‘clean up business’

For too long our governments have relied on voluntary approaches when it comes to trying to prevent business from abusing human rights and damaging the environment. Asking corporations to voluntarily police themselves has failed to prevent abuses from happening. A recent European Commission study shows that only one in three businesses in the EU are currently assessing the impact of their operations on human rights and the environment.

We need stronger measures with teeth, we need our governments to act.

However, there is now a new EU law being developed to ensure that companies, including banks, in the EU will have an obligation to consider the human rights and environmental impacts of their actions.

This proposed EU law is massively important, given the significance of the European economy on a global scale, and the large number of transnational corporations operating in the EU. A strong law is needed to put an end to bad practices like forced labour, violence against women, deforestation, union busting, land grabbing, toxic waste dumping, unchecked CO2 emissions and biodiversity destruction.

An important step in the development of this law is that the EU is now consulting publicly to get  opinions on the new law. Given the powerful corporate lobby will be pushing against robust legislation, this is a really unique moment for members of the public to demand a strong and effective law.

Please make your voice heard. Tell the EU you want a strong and effective law which defends human rights and the environment. It’s essential that the EU uses its power to set ambitious standards in the fight to hold business accountable for human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

 

You can sign up to this European campaign to have your voice heard

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9 year old Maria from Guatemala featured on the 2019 Trócaire box. Her family were evicted from their land due to the actions of corporate interests, eager to use the land for producing palm oil. María is pictured alongside her mother, Adela (41), and grandmother, María (85). Photo : Mark Stedman 9 year old Maria from Guatemala featured on the 2019 Trócaire box. Her family were evicted from their land due to the actions of corporate interests, eager to use the land for producing palm oil. María is pictured alongside her mother, Adela (41), and grandmother, María (85). Photo : Mark Stedman

How will this law actually influence corporate behaviour?

We believe this new EU law must be broad in its scope, covering human rights and environmental impacts. The law must ensure that companies are held liable for their actions and face sanctions and that those affected get compensated. The law should also ensure that victims can access EU courts when their rights have been violated.

Women are less likely to be included in decisions about corporate developments, face gender specific harms and violence by corporate actors and experience additional barriers in seeking access to justice, therefore this law must put gender equality at its centre.

The law should ensure that organisations embed human rights in their policies and practice (what’s termed ‘human rights and environmental due diligence’). To do this they must consult with communities that are impacted by their activities, and get consent for developments on indigenous peoples’ land.

‘Due diligence’ in its simplest terms means companies ensuring that they are not involved in human rights and environmental harm throughout their operations. This can include through their direct activities, or indirectly, for example through the actions of their subsidiaries, investments or through business relationships.

For example, this would mean that a company would have to show that they, and their suppliers, are not causing the pollution of land, imposing developments without consent of indigenous communities, evicting communities from their land or perpetrating attacks on human rights defenders, all of which Trócaire witnesses in our day-to-day work.

You can sign up to this European campaign to have your voice heard

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