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Friends of the Earth International was in Geneva again as the UN continues to work towards developing a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights.  This year is particularly important in the treaty process as the 3rd intergovernmental working group session aims to start negotiating a first draft when it meets in October 2017.

“The UN Treaty is not about ‘corporate social responsibility’ or voluntary mechanisms, it is about international binding rules to end impunity of transnational corporations. It is about putting peoples rights at the centre and before corporate profits.”

Lucia Ortiz, Friends of the Earth International

The regular session of the human rights council running from 6-23 June, was an opportunity for Friends of the Earth International and allies to highlight their demands for and pressure states to commit to the binding treaty process. Business and human rights is an issue which is often discussed only in very broad and ambiguous terms. Consequently corporate impunity is rife. Friends of the Earth’s aims to bring the reality of this impunity to the attention of the decision makers.

Transnational corporations are the perpetrators of human rights abuses, not the protectors of human rights as they are often erroneously portrayed. People affected by business operations and especially environmental and Human Rights defenders need to be heard. People must be at the heart of this process.

Tchenna Maso from the Movement of People Affected by Dams of Brazil (MAB) drew attention to recent tragic events in Brazil such as the corporate crime committed by Vale and BHP Billington at Doce River and the current context of Michael Temer’s illegitimate government working for corporate interests. Forest fires are choking Indonesia, thanks to companies clearing land for palm oil and paper plantations. Business groups, representing the palm oil and timber industries implicated in these crimes, filed a lawsuit against Indonesia’s environment and forestry laws, aiming to abolish the concept of strict liability, which holds companies responsible for any fires occurring on their land. 

The need for a binding treaty has never been more urgent, with an increase in human rights violations and persecution of environmental defenders. This month saw the start of a court hearing seeking justice for murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres.

“We see how the peoples’ livelihoods are being destroyed, we see how environmental activists, human rights   defenders, defenders of the territories and life are being persecuted by corporations and repressed by states.
As environmental justice organizations, we cannot allow this to continue. We must put an end to this impunity. Transnational corporations must be judged for their violations”.

Karin Nansen, Chair of Friends of the Earth International

While the binding treaty was not discussed directly, the session concentrated on the implementation and on the extension of the mandate of the UN expert working group on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a purely voluntary approach. This approach, which places no mandatory requirements on corporations, is largely discussed from the perspective of the business sector, with little or no regard for the victims of corporate impunity. For example neither state nor corporation has recompensed the Ikebiri community in Nigeria for the devastating effects of an oil spill. The community with the help of ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Friends of the Earth Europe are therefore having to sue the oil giant themselves. El Salvador banned metal mining in order to protect its people’s right to water from corporate greed. Ecuador terminated bilateral investment treaties (BITs) that protect investors over public interest. While these stories are encouraging, they are not the norm. Guiding principles are not enough, they deal with Human Rights on a purely and unjustly business perspective. The next step has to be a binding treaty at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Friends of the Earth International and allies, including the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and End Impunity and the Treaty Alliance are therefore calling for a legally binding international instrument to put an end to corporate abuse and human rights violations; an instrument that is developed from the perspective of affected communities, not businesses.

It is poignant that the day before the regular session opened, June 5, marked 50 years of Israeli occupation and human rights abuses in Palestine. It was an opportunity to say enough is enough not only with regard to Israeli military occupation but with regard to Israeli corporate abuse. Israeli water company Mekorot steals water from the Palestinians and denies them access to this natural resource.

“States must fulfil their obligations under international law and put pressure on Israel to stop these human rights violations and to condemn the excessive violations of human rights.”

Abeer Butmeh of PENGON – Friends of the Earth Palestine

Friends of the Earth International and allies are developing proposals for the content for a binding treaty that will force companies to respect human rights. These proposals will be submitted before the next round of negotiations in October.

They are also demanding that the Treaty process be safeguarded from corporate capture by limiting business participation. As a reminder of this conflict of interests, Friends of the Earth International and allies called on the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights during the UNHRC 35th session to “cancel the so-called partnership with Microsoft and desist from any agreements with other business corporations or corporate setups”.

People currently have no instrument for justice when they are victim to the atrocities perpetrated by transnational corporations: It is time for a new binding treaty to address this need. We must continue to build the mass mobilisation in support for this treaty process.

Image: Friends of the Earth delegation in Geneva, June 2017