Defending rights from corporate power: The case for a Peoples’ Treaty

More than a year has passed since the Rana Plaza disaster, which on 24 April 2013 claimed the lives of more than 1,100 garment workers. Those who died, mostly women, were making clothing in terrible working conditions for high-profile retailers including Walmart, Benetton, Bonmarché, the Children’s Place, El Corte Inglés, Mango, Matalan and Primark.

Public outrage over the avoidable disaster forced retailers to join initiatives such as the Bangladesh Safety Accord (BSA) to prevent future workplace deaths; the Accord which covers 1600 factories in Bangladesh and which legally enforces fire and safety standards is a significant step forward.

However neither the BSA nor other similar agreements signed in the wake of the tragedy provide any recourse for victims to seek damages from any of the transnational corporations (TNCs) that profited from the unsafe, low-wage clothing production; in fact, only half of the companies linked to Rana Plaza deigned to offer compensation to the survivors and families who lost loved ones.

Sadly, the impunity of TNCs related to the Rana Plaza disaster is not an isolated case. In Ecuador, Amazonian indigenous communities have been waiting for three decades for compensation from oil giant Chevron for the oil spills that contaminated their soil, rivers, forests and groundwater. Chevron has not only failed to clean up their mess but has also fought every legal recompense, refusing to pay $9 billion dollars in damages awarded by Ecuadorian courts.

The same story goes for the people of the polluted Niger Delta, where victims of violence and pollution have been blocked from justice and compensation on countless occasions.

Encouragingly though, a meeting of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva this week (23-27 June) could offer the first steps towards an international legal process that would provide avenues for justice against corporate crimes.

Ecuador,  backed by 84 governments has proposed a binding legal instrument for TNC operations in order “to provide appropriate protection, justice and remedy to the victims of human rights abuses directly resulting from or related to the activities of some transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” The call has been backed by more than 530 civil society organisations(CSOs).

Ecuador’s proposal is being fiercely resisted by EU member states, US, Canada and other nations – an indication of a bumpy road ahead in a world where public policy in most nations is influenced so strongly by corporate money.

Nevertheless,  the fact that the proposed binding treaty has received significant government supports marks an important turning point in a global economic order where until recently the very idea of introducing laws to regulate corporations was seen as heretical.

It also reflects growing awareness that international codes of conduct and corporations’ own voluntary, self-policing efforts known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) may have been great for projecting positive images of corporations, but have had much less impact in actually changing corporate behaviour.

One of the largest EU-funded systematic investigations of CSR released in 2013 assessed the impact of CSR initiatives by 5300 small and medium enterprises and more than 200 large firms . The investigation hardly minced its words in concluding that: “There is little empirical evidence which explains the concrete impacts of CSR activities and programmes on the organizational performance of companies, the wider economy, or the social and environmental fabric of Europe, its nations and regions.”

In order to expose the  ‘architecture of impunity’ that continues to protect corporations, human rights activists in various countries have held Permanent Peoples’ Tribunals – includingone to be held this week in Geneva – to hear testimonies from affected communities and to publicise otherwise undocumented abuses committed by TNCs.

Hundreds of organisations have also got together in a global campaign to dismantle corporate power and to demand a Peoples’ Treaty (PT) to regulate corporations, which includes a call for legally binding codes taken up by Ecuador’s government.

A people’s treaty seeks to end the current framework of privilege and impunity enjoyed by TNCs. It is rooted in a belief that improvements in corporate behaviour should not depend on public outrage at avoidable tragedies such as the Rana Plaza, but should instead be integral to our laws and society.  This will require a shift away from corporations policing themselves towards allowing society to police them; making corporations subject to public regulation and public interest rather than controlling it.

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