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United Nations, human rights and corporate accountability

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-05-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

I never thought I would become a fan-boy of United Nations’ stodgy human rights process and its Byzantine application, but developments of the past month have served to put a little kick in that step. As much as the general application of human rights, it involves the specific application of human rights in business. And, by extension: corporate accountability.

This took place after India’s controversial official defence at UN’s country-specific Universal Periodic Review of human rights, which took place in Geneva in early May, and which, among other things, highlighted the stark truth that, in the world of propaganda the space between myth and reality is steadily shrinking.

Moving along from the general space of human rights to the specific one that involves business, the office of UN Human Rights has stepped deeper into the space that non-governmental human rights and investor watchdogs have thus far occupied, of documenting human rights violations related to business, and tracking remedial action.

In May, the UN released a report as part of its ongoing Accountability and Remedy project, in this case highlighting what are called non-judicial mechanisms in the “business and human rights dimension”. The report focused on four major areas: extractives, mining and natural resources; agribusiness and food production; infrastructure and construction; and textiles and manufacture of clothing. The four sectors together account for a range of human rights ills and risks, from massive land acquisition and displacement and dislocation of communities to violence with “complicity in human rights abuses by state agencies,” livelihood, environmental risks, and employing forced labour and child labour.

These were observed through the prism of a country’s labour, environmental and consumer laws, and even what it calls regulatory regimes governing the activities of private security providers.

Indeed, it specifically looked at governments’ regulatory and licensing bodies; complaint mechanisms attached to government agencies dealing in development finance and export support; national human rights institutions; “sector-based arbitration and dispute resolution services” like India’s National Green Tribunal; and even ombudsman and mediation services to work out disputes between individuals and communities and businesses.

It’s all quite kosher. Technically there is no over-stepping of boundaries—what critics of the UN sometimes term “mission creep.” Countries and businesses may not like it, but UN Human Rights is backed by a resolution adopted by the UN’s Human Rights Council in June 2016: “Business and human rights: improving accountability and access to remedy.”

The report offers case studies, which is of enormous importance for the sheer reach, besides the stamp of the UN behind it—certainly of its increasingly combative human rights division. It also offers a window into case studies that could soon include India; indeed, they mirror situations in India.

There is the case of mining in Wirikuta, Mexico, which intruded on the rights of indigenous people, besides increasing risks of environmental degradation. The San Bartolome mining project in Bolivia, which involves US business interests, threw up evidence of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s “alleged failure … to follow its own environmental and social standards with respect to support for the mine.”

An extractives operation of China Gold International Resources Corp. Ltd in the Tibetan Auotonomous Region panned Chinese authorities, besides the operation’s Canadian associates: “It is alleged that the company had not adequately conducted environmental due diligence which has led to environmental degradation and loss of life, and other health and safety issues; not respected human rights through discriminatory hiring practices, forced evictions, expropriation of land, violations of freedom of expression and information, and the inability to obtain remedy ...”

Thai sugar production companies in Cambodia came in for scrutiny for “involuntary relocation of people, destruction of property and livestock, lack of effective compensation for harm, harassment and intimidation of protestors.” As did “modern slavery practices” in the agriculture sector in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom; and Qatar’s unlovely labour practices related to the construction activities for the Fifa 2022 World Cup that also roped in culpability of Swiss businesses and Swiss government mechanisms.

It’s a wide arc of review or indictment, and it’s only Phase 1. The next phase of research will take deeper dives. India cannot be far behind.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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