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Time to hold corporations legally accountable for human rights and environmental crimes

Transnational corporations generally enjoy impunity from liability and prosecution for human rights abuses in developing countries, often linked to land grabbing and environmental pollution. States meeting in Geneva on Monday to discuss a binding UN treaty must seize the opportunity to hold them accountable.

FIAN International stands in solidarity with hundreds of social movements and civil society groups around the world calling for a binding treaty with the teeth to protect peasants, small hold farmers, Indigenous Peoples and communities who have no proper recourse to justice when their lives, health and livelihoods are threatened. 

“There are too many gaps in international law which allow for the impunity of corporations that have caused or contributed to serious human rights impacts. After seven years of talks, governments must now stand firmly on the side of affected communities and advance the negotiations, taking into account the urgent need for global solutions,” said FIAN International’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ana María Suárez Franco.

There is currently no binding global legal framework to regulate the activities and value chains of transnational mining companies, agribusiness and other businesses with atrocious human rights records. This is particularly problematic in resource rich countries in the Global South with weaker legal protections, where companies can argue that they are not breaking any local or international laws when they force communities off their land, pollute their habitats, and even cause loss of life.

Voluntary guidelines like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and national legislation like the French law on the duty of vigilance of transnational corporations are not enough to protect communities and the environment from unscrupulous corporations. As demonstrated in several recent high profile cases, such as the massive displacement of communities in Uganda by French oil giant Total, the Brumadinho Dam Disaster in Brazil and Land grabbing by POSCO in India, a robust set of binding rules are needed to ensure peoples human rights are prioritized over economic interests.

“An international treaty on transnational corporations and other businesses is essential to govern globalized economies,” said Ana María Suárez Franco. “A level legal playing field would fill the gaps in protection, allow people better access to justice, and hold companies liable for their human rights and environmental impacts.”

In the wake of last month’s UN Food Systems Summit in Rome, which failed to curb the growing power of agribusiness, it is all the more important to seize this opportunity at the UN in Geneva between 25 and 29 October.

Corporate interests, or states intent on defending them at the expense of people, must not be allowed to hijack the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Respect to Human Rights (OEIGWG) must not be hijacked by corporate interests, as happened in the past with similar initiatives.

That would be a lost opportunity for communities fighting human rights abuses around the world and for the UN-system.