2016 was an important year in the African continent’s struggle against corporate impunity, with the first session of the Southern African Peoples Permanent Tribunal (PPT) taking place in Swaziland.

The PPT is an independent legal body that examines systemic human rights violations. The tribunal is strategically important because it gives victims a voice and guidance and exposes companies who violate human and environmental rights.

At the 2017 Southern African Peoples Permanent Tribunal seven cases were presented in relation to issues of land, food and agriculture. Four of these cases denounced large corporations such as Parmalat and Monsanto. Two focused on Mozambique: the proposed Mphanda Nkuwa dam project and the  ProSavana triangular partnership program between the governments of Mozambique, Brazil and Japan to develop agribusiness in the Nacala Corridor.

Legal experts who heard from community members and activists agreed that spaces such as the Permanent Peoples Tribunal are crucial. They place these issues in a global context, showing that human rights violations are widespread and enabled by an architecture of impunity that is characteristic of our extractive capitalist development system.

This architecture of impunity consists of several elements and actors: economic power of corporations, political power, trade architecture, legal power and social power. It places corporate rights above human rights, and makes way for many examples of lucrative corporate crimes.

Friends of the Earth International groups are supporting efforts to dismantle corporate power.

For example, Friends of the Earth Mozambique is training lawyers and trying to hold companies to account through the law.

One such case is a coal project by the Brazilian mining company Vale, which has negatively impacted the communities of the Tete Province in Mozambique by forcibly displacing 1,365 families and directly polluting soil and water sources. The company has not upheld its promises to provide decent relocation opportunities for affected people. Small-scale farmers have been unable to cultivate their lands.

A claim presented by the association of brickmakers was denied. Other lawsuits brought by NGOs and law groups end up stuck in courts. A decision has yet to be made in relation to the urgent precarious situation of these communities. Meanwhile the company is allowed to continue its operations undisturbed, while community protests are handled with violence by both the company and the police.

Friends of the Earth Mozambique is working at the national, regional and International level in this fight for justice, recognizing how the national legal system alone cannot take on the impunity of transnational corporations and provide access to justice and reparations to the victims. Another challenge for communities seeking justice has been the lack of legal instruments to provide power to condemn and punish corporations. At this time, transnational corporations simply have to follow voluntary standards and guiding principles that ‘advise’ best practices on human rights issues. The panel of jurors of the Peoples Permanent Tribunal also made clear that the mobilization of people and the formation of a new international court on corporate crimes are a fundamental part of the fight for justice.

As corporations operate in different national jurisdictions, they can take advantage of this to evade accountability. For Africa, expanding the limits of international law and demanding legal instruments that allow victims of such violations to demand justice has become a matter of urgency.

An intergovernmental working group, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, is currently drafting  a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights in Geneva. Numerous countries, mostly in the Global South, have already expressed their support for the Treaty.

According to Friends of the Earth International and the Treaty Alliance, the Treaty must establish the criminal and civil liability of transnational corporations in order to fill existing legal gaps in international law. It should also apply to all subsidiary companies and those that form part of their supply chains.

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Image: extracted from the cover of the 2nd Southern African Permanent Peoples Tribunal on Transnational Corporations