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Using legal strategies to defend people from corporate abuses

FoEI aims to effectively expose and counter corporate crimes and their social, environmental and human rights impacts, specifically on women’s and men’s productive and reproductive activities, as well as countering corporate influence over governments and institutions such as the international financial institutions (IFIs), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other institutions.

Used legal strategies to defend people from corporate abusesTo this end we develop and advocate for legal measures to give rights to women, men and communities, and to protect them against corporate power. We also provide technical support and strategic assistance to civil society organizations that are working to hold corporations accountable for actions in their communities.


In recent years we have explored many legal options for holding corporations accountable for their actions, both in the countries where the actions in question took place and in the countries where the corporations are based. As a result, governments around the world are being required to take action to hold corporations accountable for their practices and their impacts on social welfare and the environment. We have also developed a database of 15 (semi) legal cases that FoE groups have brought against TNCs, to make sure that our collective experience is shared, remembered and built upon.


We have also pursued other strategies, including the use of existing corporate regulations on misleading advertisement; working in the European Parliament to ensure lobbyists are obliged to disclose information about their clients and budgets; filing complaints at the OECD and at the World Bank Inspection Panel; and helping affected communities make best use of legal avenues to challenge harmful projects and policies.


Finally, we continued building relationships with other civil society organizations working on legal strategies (the Climate Justice Program in the UK, for example, and Earth Rights International in the US).


Our results in 2008 showed that these strategies are extremely effective. In Africa, for example, FoEI supported twelve Nigerian communities in filing an official complaint with the World Bank’s Inspection Panel concerning the West African Gas Pipeline project in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. We also facilitated an exchange visit from Nigeria and Ghana to Togo, allowing campaigners and community leaders to share their experiences and build stronger solidarity. FoE Nigeria held an environmental monitors’ training workshop in Lagos for communities that were impacted by the pipeline project, and organized a strategy session among Nigerian communities to enable them to learn how to organize themselves more effectively and find out how to engage with the Inspection Panel. We also drafted international media advisories, which received worldwide coverage. Following that, FoE Nigeria presented the project and its problems at the Public Hearing on the World Bank in October in Europe. In the end, the Inspection Panel ruled that many of the communities’ complaints were valid. As such, this campaign is a stellar example of just how effective taking local needs and wishes to the national and global levels can be.


Again in West Africa, oil corporations in the Niger Delta refuse to put a stop to gas flaring, even though it has been illegal in Nigeria since 1984. Most people in the region are poor fishermen and women and farmers, unable to stand up to multi-billion dollar corporations. The Nigerian government has also failed to enforce its ban on gas flaring which should have come into force in December 2008. FoE Nigeria is using legal channels and litigation to stop gas flaring and oil spills being pursued through the Nigerian courts, including by providing close collaboration to the lead counsel, organizing field trips in the Niger Delta to identify communities affected by new spills, and recording damages to be presented as further evidence. With the support of FoE Netherlands, in 2008 four fishermen and farmers from the Niger Delta, who had lost their livelihoods due to oil spills from pipelines or installations owned by Shell, filed a lawsuit in the Netherlands against Royal Dutch Shell for oil pollution in the Niger Delta.


In Asia, recourse to legal tools is more established. Because of the different political contexts in which they operate, many of our groups in Asia are lawyers’ organizations and already use legal strategies as their main means of achieving environmental justice in their home countries. For example, the efforts of FoE Bangladesh, through public interest litigation known as PIL, have truly sensitized the concept of ‘environmental justice' in Bangladesh: the country now has special courts to deal with environmental offenses.


FoE Malaysia assists lawyers working on important legal cases involving Indigenous communities defending their land and Native Customary Rights, against logging and plantation encroachments, illegal sand quarrying, aluminum smelting, and wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution. FoE Malaysia gathered and drafted witness statements, and produced maps. These cases will help shape future interpretation of Native Customary Rights law.


FoE Papua New Guinea carried out a number of important patrols and fact-finding missions to protect the rights of people threatened by illegal and unsustainable forest practices and oil palm expansion in Papua New Guinea.


FoE Indonesia continues to empower communities to defend themselves and to stop environmental destruction in West Kalimantan. This includes sharing and spreading information about similar resistance experiences, such as how Indigenous People in the Ketapang District are persuading their local government to resist exploitative development in the region; and how local communities have been criminalized for demonstrating against oil palm plantation company PT Ledo Lestari which is violating Indigenous People’s rights on the Indonesia-Malaysia border.


FoE Philippines achieved a major victory against the OceanaGold mining company. In 2008, the Regional Trial Court in Bayombong declared that the demolition of Indigenous People’s houses in Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, to make space for their gold-copper project, was illegal. Later, the provincial government of Nueva Vizcaya withdrew its support and opposed the mining company’s Didipio gold-copper project.


Another victory was reported by FoEI's EJRN program in a case they have been pursuing together with other NGOs in the Philippines: the Supreme Court in Manila ordered the transfer of an oil depot housing three oil firms, and dismissed an appeal by Chevron, Petron Corp, and Pilipinas Shell.


During the EU-Latin American Summit in Lima in May 2008, we held workshops at the civil society forums on a number of critical issues, arbitration between companies and governments through the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). A new worldwide campaign on ICSID was launched at the summit, involving groups in Europe, Latin America and US, and this was complemented by a resolution in the European Parliament that supports our demands for community rights and liability of companies. We also launched the booklet ‘The Story of IIRSA’; a popular education production that explains what IIRSA is through attractive illustrations and storytelling. We also prepared three cases for the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal on European transnational corporations, focusing on the energy sector.



FoE Uruguay, together with other environmental organizations, scored another victory in 2008.The Spanish paper company ENCE is building a mega paper pulp plant in Uruguay, designed to produce about one million tons of eucalyptus pulp. ENCE manages about 170,000 hectares of plantations in Southern Uruguay, which will be the main supply source for the plant. Following legal actions undertaken in 2007 to disclose information about ENCE’s plans to install a pulp plant in Uruguay (supported by economic incentives from the government), the Ministry of Agriculture decided in favor of civil society’s demands and suspended the proceeding for logging, due to the company’s premature and unauthorized logging of dozens of hectares of Indigenous territory.


FoEI also continued to host the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ), which includes many FoE groups. The coalition launched two reports (‘Fair Law’, and ‘With power comes responsibility’) containing concrete proposals about changes to EU law intended to prevent human rights abuses and environmental degradation within the sphere of responsibility of European multinational enterprises. The ECCJ proposes to make parent companies liable for their subsidiaries; establish a parental company duty of care for environmental, social and human rights issues; and introduce mandatory environmental reporting. Our efforts have been rewarded with a resolution in the European Parliament supporting our demands for community rights and liability of companies.


The European Commission also responded with interest, setting up an interdepartmental working group to study and discuss the proposals with ECCJ and FoE. The Commission is finally willing to look into what mandatory measures are needed in addition to its policies on voluntary corporate social responsibility, and has announced it will start a study of the legal framework on human rights and environmental issues applicable to European companies operating outside the EU, in order to identify governance gaps.


Around the world, governments are beginning to take action to hold corporations accountable for their practices and their impacts on social welfare and the environment including in other countries. Examples of this trend include the case that FoE Germany won against the German government, in which the court ruled that the German Export Credit Agency must disclose the climate impacts of subsidies it has provided to corporations for projects in developing countries. The Dutch government will also start research into holding Dutch companies liable for problems they have caused outside the EU, and will also look into how victims can get better access to justice. The UK parliament will start to investigate whether or not the existing legal system in the UK provides sufficient protection against human rights violation by companies. A new law in Argentina will force companies registered in Buenos Aires employing more than 300 workers to report on social and environmental impacts. The criteria for reporting have been developed by the ETHOS Institute (Brazil) and also follow UK standard AA 1000 on Accountability.


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