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New online portal focuses on business and human rights advocacy

This summer, ESCR-Net and NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice launched the Business and Human Rights Documentation Project, or B-HRD ("Be Heard").  ERI has long been a member of ESCR-Net, and I'm serving on the advisory board for B-HRD, so this is a pretty exciting development.

The new site includes a database of human rights reports related to business and human rights (including ERI's reports), as well as more detailed information on a few specific campaigns, including a campaign  accountability for private security contractors, which is also a focal point of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable.

B-HRD also includes a valuable collection of resources for using a variety of tools to combat business-related human rights abuses, including accountability mechanisms ranging from U.S. courts to the OECD Guidelines to the U.N. system.  In recognition of the global impact of business, the site features content in English, Spanish, and French.

Unlike the massive Business & Human Rights Resource Centre site, which is an all-purpose clearinghouse for information relating to business and human rights, the B-HRD site is focused on human rights advocacy.  A growing number of advocates and human rights organizations are working on corporate or business-related human rights issues, and this site begins to bring this community and its resources together.  As corporate accountability is a major part of ERI's work, we look forward to following, supporting, and contributing to this site in the future.

Peruvian Indigenous Communities Break Off Talks With Maple Energy

Last week, Accountability Counsel – a long-time ERI partner organization – announced the failure of talks between two Peruvian indigenous communities and Maple Gas, an oil company that used to be headquartered in the U.S., over the severe health impacts of repeated oil spills in the creeks the communities use for drinking and bathing water.  The communities had hoped that this mediation – sponsored by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is invested in the extraction project – would help convince Maple to clean up its act and pay compensation.  Unfortunately, the process has run aground over – of all things – the communities’ request that Maple pay for an assessment simply to study the health impacts of its operations.

This development strikes me as being both frustrating and hopeful, at the same time.  On the positive side, the fact that the communities were willing to break off talks suggest a determination not to be bought off, and a display of willpower that will sustain them in the battles that are doubtless to come.  Many other communities, if put in a similar situation, might be overawed by the presence of international financial institution representatives and company officials, and conclude that whatever came out of the negotiation process would simply be the best that they could get.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, though; the last time the communities of Canaán de Cachiyacu and Nuevo Sucre felt that the company wasn’t living up to its promises, they dressed in full traditional war garb and occupied Maple’s production facilities, shutting them down for days.  And with the capable accompaniment of Accountability Counsel, the communities clearly knew when to walk away.

My frustrations stem from two issues – one involving companies’ approach to settling disputes with communities, and the other with the . . .

ERSM students meet grassroots heroes in northeastern Thailand

Deep in northeastern Thailand, bordering both Cambodia and Laos, Ubon Ratchathani is about as far from the smoggy chaos of Bangkok and sun-baked throngs of tourists as one could get. For Thai activists, however, this remote province was center stage for several of Thailands most dramatic grassroots campaigns for environmental justice. In August, students from the EarthRights School Mekong traveled to Ubon to meet the community members who dedicated their lives to these struggles.

The Pak Mun dam case has been in the Thai headlines since its completion in 1994. The reservoir it created displaced thousands of people and the fish catch decreased by as much as 80%, with 50 of the 265 species disappearing completely. For 25,000 people living along the Mun River whose income depended almost entirely on fishing, the dam was a disaster. To add insult to injury, it failed to produce anywhere near its projected electricity output.

ERSM students at the Pak Mun damERSM students at the Pak Mun dam

Our students met with community activists who fought the dam with sustained protests, petitioning the government to pay compensation and decommission the dam. Their efforts were stalled with each change of government, but in 2001 it was agreed that the gates would be opened for at least part of each year. Fish stocks are slowly returning but the fight to destroy the dam entirely continues.

Two hours north of Pak Mun is the small village of Huay Ra Ha, home of Grandma Hai Khanjantha. For three decades she protested the reservoir that flooded her land, impoverishing her family and several others in the village. Her story became international news when she, along with her family and neighbors, broke . . .

Fighting intensifies around oil and gas pipelines construction in Burma

While Daewoo International, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and their sub-contractors are busy constructing the Burma-China oil and gas pipelines facilities across Arakan State, Magway Division and Mandalay Division to Shan State, fighting between the Burma army and several ethnic nationalities including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), SSPP (formally SSA-S and SSA-N) continue throughout Kachin State and Northern Shan State.

Many civilians have fled the area since the Burma Army began its offensive back in March 2011. Some have fled to neighboring towns, others to the Burma-China border, and some others to Burma-Thailand border. Many villagers remain in hiding in the jungle in the area.

On August 11, 2011, a press release issued by the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) claimed that villagers fleeing Burma Army atrocities have soared to over 30,000 during recent intensified attacks against the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), causing a dire humanitarian crisis in northern Shan State. The report indicates that over 4,000 Burmese troops from 42 battalions were deployed during July to seize the SSA-N headquarters of Wan Hai in Ke See Township, backed up by jet fighter planes. Advancing through surrounding villages, troops have been scaling up atrocities against civilians, including killings, rapes and mutilations. One dead villager was found with his leg and hand cut off.

Northern Shan State, where the proposed oil and gas pipelines will pass through, is partly under control of both the KIA 4th Brigade and SSA-N. Both the KIA and SSA-N had a ceasefire with Burmese regime, but this agreement disappeared after the Burmese regime attempted to force ceasefire groups to join so-called Border Guard Forces (BGF). After the KIA and SSA-N brigades 3 and 5 . . .

Don't Discount Delaware: Can the First State be a Forum for Transnational Corporate Liability Cases?

Nearly a million businesses have their legal home in Delaware, including more than 60 percent of the Fortune 500. The Delaware General Corporation Law and the state’s Court of Chancery are known worldwide for their pro-business approaches to corporate law. Delaware is unique in the United States because its Court of Chancery is modeled on England’s Court of Chancery, and handles matters of equity instead of legal issues, does not have juries, and focuses on commercial cases.

As many U.S. corporations enjoy the favorable legal climate in Delaware, civil society members and developing countries’ citizens have accused some of these corporations of human rights and environmental abuses abroad. From instances of oil pollution in Peru to child slave labor in the Ivory Coast, U.S. corporations have been accused of benefiting from weak environmental and social policies in developing states. For example, the United Nations (UN) has reported that in 2008, the top 3,000 global companies created $2.2 trillion in annual environmental damage.

Under federal law, foreign plaintiffs may sue U.S. corporations for harmful overseas activities in U.S. courts. Yet, transnational tort cases that do not necessarily involve allegations of genocide, slavery, or torture often face an early possibility of dismissal based upon forum non conveniens grounds, such as happened in the litigation over Chevron’s pollution in Ecuador. Forum non conveniens is an option available to the defense where it can argue that there is an alternative court that is adequate to hear the case. Often times, dismissal based on forum non conveniens is a death knell to foreign plaintiffs’ claims who face a plethora of jurisdictional, procedural, and practical challenges in their home courts. 

Delaware has admittedly not been a popular forum for transnational claims against corporations, perhaps because of the forum’s reputation as pro-business. But Delaware . . .

Shell accepts liability for catastrophic oil spills in the Niger Delta

Yesterday news broke that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the UK/Dutch oil giant’s Nigerian subsidiary, admitted responsibility for two catastrophic oil spills in the Bodo region of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Today the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the most comprehensive study detailing the devastating environmental impacts of oil production on Ogoniland. Taken together, the report and admission of responsibility by Shell are powerful reminders of the crippling effect the oil industry continues to have on the Delta’s economy and environment, particularly on local communities that rely on the land and water for their survival.

Extensive oil spills devastate resources in the Niger Delta

In August and December 2008, two wellheads owned by SPDC sprang leaks spewing 14,000 tons of crude oil into the region’s waterways, devastating water, food, and fuel resources. People in the community say that in each instance, the wellheads were not capped until they had been spewing oil for over three months, even though Shell representatives admit they had been aware of the leaks for several weeks.

The spill is estimated to be larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, and covers an area of coastline equivalent to that of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, unlike the BP incident, the Bodo spills occurred within the creeks and rivers of the Bodo communities, and will not dissipate naturally as some scientists’ claim of oil in the Gulf of Mexico (a highly controversial claim). Experts say that while remediation is possible, it will likely require twenty years and $100 million to clean up. Tragically, spills like these are nothing new to the region, which has experienced an average of three spills per day totaling nearly 13 million barrels over the nearly 50 years of oil production . . .

Mae Kham Pong: An Alternative Solution to Large Scale Development Projects

In the past two months, students at the EarthRights School Mekong (ERSM) have been studying the impacts of large development projects, particularly dams, in the greater Mekong Region. Although funders of dams state that dams positively develop countries and reduce poverty, in reality, the result is often quite negative, particularly for rural and indigenous populations.

Large scale dams have been shown to flood villages, force people to resettle, and decreases food security by depleting fish species and flooding farmland. In addition, the energy that is generated from the dams often benefits only residents in larger cities.

The ERSM students have also learned that our dependency on non-renewable resources such as coal and oil is just as harmful. Fossil fuels have polluted our air and water, contributed to climate change, and cause respiratory illnesses.

One of two generators at the Mae Kham Pong plantOne of two generators at the Mae Kham Pong plant So how can we get energy that is sustainable, clean, and renewable? This is where our recent trip to Mae Kham Pong comes in. Mae Kham Pong is a village one hour north of Chiang Mai, which has been operating a micro hydropower dam for the last 30 years. The micro hydropower dam was built after the villagers told the government that they wanted electricity for their homes and schools.  The Ministry of Alternative Power helped to partially fund the micro hydropower dam, to be built on the village stream. The villagers labored and built the dam themselves. It consists of a power/control house and two generators that produce a total of 40 kw. That provides enough energy to light each home and because of the dam’s small size, it . . .

Chokkobe: A Fragile Childhood on the Salween River

The following essay was written by "Karine," a Vietnamese student at the EarthRights School Mekong, following a class trip to Tha Ta Fang, a small village on the Thai side of the Salween River (map), on the Thai-Burma border. The Salween is the longest dam-free river in mainland Southeast Asia, but is threatened by a number of proposed dam projects.


 

There is a little girl in Tha Ta Fang village. Her name is Chokkobe. She is four years old, and her family was my host family during the 4 days I stayed in the village. Chokkobe is the cutest child I’ve ever met. She has a bright face with wide-open eyes. She loves to take photos and always ask to look at them after. She loves to play hide and seek with me. She can say “Hello, good night, and thank you” in English, and she says "good bye" with a kiss. Chokkobe wakes up early every morning and goes to school without crying. I can say that many children in Tha Ta Fang village really enjoy studying like Chokkobe.

ERSM students near the Salween RiverERSM students near the Salween River Fortunately, Chokkobe is luckier than most of her friends in the village because she’s got Thai citizenship. Her father has Thai citizenship, but her mother does not. Some people will ask me why I say “fortunately,” because having citizenship is her right as a human being? But many children in Tha Ta Fang village don’t have Thai citizenship. It means that they cannot go to secondary school or any other schools outside their villages. They cannot have support from the Thai government. Moreover, when it comes to adulthood, those children don’t . . .

Major victory for transnational human rights litigation in the UK: mining company compensates Peruvian victims of torture

From our friends at Leigh Day & Co., a UK law firm that has pioneered transnational human rights litigation in the English courts, comes news that the Monterrico Metals mining company has agreed to compensate 33 Peruvians who alleged that they were tortured by Peruvian police in retaliation for protesting against a mine run by a Monterrico subsidiary.

The plaintiffs argued that their beatings and torture, in August 2005, was part of a strategy of suppression against community protest and opposition to their activities in Peru, and that mine employees and security contractors participated in the abuse.

The settlement is confidential, but in my experience settlements like this--which involve compensation of the victims, and which are publicized by the plaintiffs--are victories.  Corporations know that the settlement will be perceived as an admission of responsibility (even if no formal admission of guilt is included), and so they won't settle unless there's a pretty good chance they are going to lose.

So congratulations to Leigh Day, and to their partners at the US-based Environmental Defender Law Center and the Peruvian organizations Fedepaz and the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, for achieving this result, another milestone that will help cement transnational corporate accountability in UK law.

Guest Post: Learning from students on the Thai-Burma border

This guest post comes from Evan, an intern with ERI’s Burma Alumni Program, who recently spent two weeks living at the Social Development Center (SDC), on the Thai-Burma border, where he taught research and report writing. The SDC was founded by alumni from the EarthRights School Burma and has been training human rights and environmental defenders since 2003.


 

I recently had the privilege of teaching for two weeks in a village in Mae Hong Sorn Province. Initially, I was off-put by the small village (“it’s rustic!” I wrote, facetiously, to my friends in Chiang Mai), and I also had my reservations about the work, worrying about how the students would view me and whether I could communicate with them effectively, in English.

After just a few days, however, these initial concerns vanished and were replaced with a new concern: spending as much time with the students as possible, without crowding their demanding schedules. Getting to know the students was an enormous pleasure – I loved learning about their backgrounds, and the stories that preceded their lives in the camp and school.  More than once I found myself up late, long past the village bedtime, chatting with students and neighbors. I also learned, through my new friendships, that I am terrible at table tennis, incapable of doing backflips off rocks near the waterfall, and my Burmese pronunciation is… lacking.

When the weekend came, and I went into town for laundry and other errands, I found the first opportunity I could to run back to the village in order to hang out a little longer with the students. When it came time to leave, after the second week, saying goodbye was a lot tougher than I ever imagined.  We promised that we would stay in contact through e-mail . . .

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