Corporate human rights abuse in Colombia

On Wednesday evening I attended an excellent presentation of a fact-finding mission to Colombia examining human rights violations perpetrated by large multinational corporations. The UK lawyers who designed the visit are hoping to raise international awareness of the plight of the indigenous communities in Colombia, where a wealth of natural resources is being exploited by multinational corporations at the expense of the indigenous communities’ land and water rights. It was a fascinating glimpse into the reality on the ground, and highlighted the tense situation faced by local human rights defenders who struggle to have their grievances heard, let alone redressed.

My own interest in Colombia stems in part from a research project I undertook with Redress, where I examined the application of emergency and security laws and their affect on the use of torture. I learned about the dominance of paramilitary groups, which have reportedly been responsible for the deaths of up to 15,000 human rights defenders and indigenous leaders between 1999 and 2009. Today, the lawyers reported that paramilitaries acting under the aegis of the local government were involved in forced relocations at the Cerrejon coal mine in La Guajira. Communities have been uprooted and their livelihoods and cultural traditions destroyed, further increasing the numbers of Colombia’s 4 to 5 million internally displaced people, which is  more than Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

One of the most salient points of the night highlighted the tension between CSR and human rights, which I wrote about in my last post. The companies with controlling interests in the Cerrejon mine (BHP Billiton, Anglo-American, and Xstrata) have invested locally in various social projects, including health clinics and schools. While these activities undoubtedly have a positive impact on the communities, they also have a dangerous deterrent effect: several individuals interviewed stated they felt less willing to stand up for their other rights because the corporation has made these limited social investments. Thus, even though the threatened diversion of the river Rancheria would wreak havoc on the local ecosystem, inhabitants are disinclined to complain. This is despite the fact that if the diversion goes forward it would violate not only their right to water, but also their right to free prior informed consent as upheld by the Colombian Constitutional Court.

The situation in La Guajira highlights the fallacy of CSR, which allows corporations to be the ultimate decision-makers and gives them the opportunity to perform cost-benefit analysis as a precondition to launching their community activities. Instead, corporate actions should be guided by legal norms protecting the human rights of the people in the communities in which they operate. The great irony in the case of La Guajira is that the corporations have improved access to health care while simultaneously increasing the need for it: air pollution is rampant and a class action suit has been filed alleging widespread coal-related diseases and cancers among the local miners.

This snapshot of the situation in northern Colombia provides a clear illustration of the importance of fact-finding missions in fleshing out corporate human rights abuse. To read the CSR and Sustainability policies of the companies involved in the Cerrejon mine, we would think they were demonstrating exemplary behavior, but we would be sorely mistaken. It is vitally important to connect with the victims who are at the heart of the human rights struggle and to tell their stories far and wide, so that they know they are not forgotten.

Follow this link or more information on the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk and their mission to Colombia.

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