human rights & business (and a few other things)

Screening of award-winning film Bhopali at Middlesex University

Friday 4 May – 15:00-17:30

The Barn 2, Hendon Campus

Middlesex University Law Department and the Bhopal Medical Appeal are organising a screening of the film Bhopali, which has won several prestigious awards. It is a documentary about the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster, the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. Today the suffering continues, prompting victims to fight for justice against Union Carbide, the American corporation responsible for the disaster.

One of the disaster’s survivors, Sanjay Verma, will be with us for a Q&A session after the film. Sanjay was 6 months old at the time of the disaster. He lived with his parents, and eight brothers and sisters, in the slum bustee right opposite the disaster factory. Sanjay’s life was saved by his sister simply bundling him up in a cloth and running from their home, fleeing amongst the panic, after they smelled the escaping gas. Sanjay, his sister, and his 13 year old brother survived. His five other siblings and both of his parents died that night. Sanjay’s was the worst hit family in all of Bhopal.

The event is free but please RSVP to Christiana Frandzis ( Light refreshment will be served.

We look forward to welcoming you at Middlesex University.

Glencore in Panorama on BBC1

Last night, just like many other people as evidenced by the activity around it on Twitter, I watched Panorama on BBC1. The episode, which can still be viewed on iPlayer for those who can access it, is looking at the giant commodity company Glencore that trades huge quantities of wheat, coal and much of the world’s copper. The documentary focuses on two sites where Glencore’s subsidiaries operate: one in Colombia where it is suspected that hitmen have killed villagers to clear the way for a mining project. And one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where journalists have found children working in the mine, as well as evidence of water pollution. Glencore was quick to react and they have posted a rebuttal on their website.

It is an interesting documentary and in my opinion it is worth taking 30 minutes to watch it. That said, I personally would have liked it to focus more on the legal aspects of the company’s potential liability in human rights violations and possible legal remedies for the victims.

Challenges ahead in Burma

One can only rejoice at the recent developments that have occurred in Burma (Myanmar) with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), winning the byelections. Though the road to democracy will be long, it is no surprise that the EU is now considering lifting some of the sanctions against Burma. The United States and Australia have announced their intention to do the same thing.

Businesses are already blossoming in Burma and if the sanctions were to be lifted, the business opportunities would further expand. Unsurprisingly, British Prime Minister David Cameron brought a business delegation along during his historic visit to Burma last Friday.

It is an understatement to say that companies that will invest in Burma in the near future will face significant human rights challenges. Burma currently ranks 149th in the UN Development Index and second to last in the latest Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. In his 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar mentioned the fact that despite the sanctions a number of multinational corporations, including European and American ones, were already operating in the country. He also pointed to several business projects such as the building of gas and oil pipelines and of a deep sea port and added: “Communities need to be consulted in a meaningful way, which does not appear to have been done in most cases.”

Business and human rights aficionados of course remember the landmark Unocal case  before US courts and the perhaps less well known proceedings against Total  in Belgium for the same set of facts involving various human rights violations including murder, torture, rape and forced labour.

Burma’s opening to the world represents a fantastic opportunity for Burmese people to improve their lives and businesses can play a significant role in this. But multinational corporations should have policies in place so that human rights are not forgotten in the process.

Bahrain, the Grand Prix and Human Rights

Since February 2011, the tiny island of Bahrain, ruled by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, has experienced a harsh government response to a wave of protests demanding more freedom and better respect for human rights. This was documented in great detail by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Professor Cherif Bassiouni, in its December 2011 report. The report clearly points to evidence of people being killed and tortured. Because of the ongoing unrest, the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled.

One year down the road, what is the current situation in Bahrain? Without a doubt there is less protest than a year ago. Those who hoped to see the so-called “Arab Spring” spreading throughout the Arab world planting the seeds of democracy in countries plagued by corrupted and violent regimes have realised the road is not an easy one. Some human rights activists, still committed to make things change for the best, are continuing to fight in various ways. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, for example, has been detained since April 2011 and today is his 64th day of hunger strike.

In this context, the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled for Sunday 22 April. In a letter to the editors in yesterday’s Financial Times, Kirsty Hughes from Index on Censorship asked for the Grand Prix not to proceed. Today, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) announced that the race would go on as planned, as “all the proper security measures are in place”. Clearly, the two parties here do not have the same objectives in mind. The point is not whether the place is safe for the race to go on, although obviously that is an important concern. The point is whether it is morally acceptable to hold an event which is going to bring substantial amounts of money to a regime who tortures its own people. It’s as simple as that.

On a side note, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone should really have thought twice before saying: “There’s nothing happening. I know people that live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.” I simply cannot resist the urge to point out that surely after 64 days without food, one is quiet and at considerable risk to be on the way to a very peaceful place indeed.

So, is boycott the way to go? I have long had a love-hate relationship with boycotting events, products or even countries on human rights grounds. I’m sure I will have the opportunity to address boycotts again in this blog but to make a long story short I think boycotts should be personal and not institutional choices. In general I find them patronizing and not appropriate. This being said, I am also uncomfortable with the idea that nothing can be done.

This is why I was happy to see that yesterday the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre issued a press release on “Bahrain, the Grand Prix and Human Rights”. They invited a number of companies involved in the upcoming Grand Prix in Bahrain to respond to human rights concerns over the current situation. The responses will be posted on the Centre’s site by Wednesday 18 April, four days before the race.

I believe this approach to be the right one. It is not a boycott. It is not “business as usual” either. It is potentially constructive and will force companies to face their responsibilities. By remaining silent and accepting to go to Bahrain, they are siding with the regime in some way despite the claims that will surely come soon about them not getting involved in politics.

Lessons from the FLA’s report on Foxconn and Apple

While doing some research on the recently released Fair Labour Association’s report on working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China, I found an article in Forbes in which the author concludes: “they’ve found very little that should surprise or concern anyone and there’s even less to do to put matters to rest”.

He points to the fact that most of the necessary changes such as raising salaries, limiting excessive overtime, and improving health and safety have been implemented already or are being worked on. So, really, what’s the fuss all about?

Points granted: in the business and human rights area, as I suppose in many other areas, the medias’ tendency to find one scapegoat, focus on it for a few weeks and then move on to another one is not that helpful for those of us who are truly concerned about business impacts on human lives. Moreover, it can rightfully give the targeted company an impression of unfairness. A sort of “why me and not the others” feeling and some challenging days and nights at work within PR departments.

Also, and more importantly as far as I am concerned, it gives the false impression that once this particular situation is dealt with, no matter how bad it was, then it’s all good and business can carry on as usual for that company and for the hundreds of others around the world operating pretty much under the same or worse conditions, but perhaps producing goods that are less fashionable than iPads .

The article in Forbes precisely falls into that trap: the argument developed is that that there were (minor) working conditions issues, that they are being dealt with and that therefore all is now fine.  But it goes further: it also says that working long hours for low pay actually is “the definition of what life is like for someone in a developing country” and that since some people had the misfortune to have been born in such countries they simply must work under these conditions.

This brings me to what I believe is the biggest challenge for the business and human rights area: people who genuinely think that since things have been done in a certain way for, well, ever then although it is unfair, this is how things are. And they should not or cannot be called into question. Those who do call them into question are whining over irrelevant matters and don’t understand business.

Just like the author of this article, I am not surprised by the poor working conditions that are highlighted in the report. But unlike him they do concern me because they are representative of a certain way of doing business that should evolve. Unlike him, I hope the FLA report and the media attention it got marks the beginning and not the end of debates on and recognition of the responsibility of business to respect human rights.

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