I had an interesting evening at Amnesty International on Monday, attending a panel event hosted by the London Mining Network. Having recently attended a handful of events which have focused on telling the corporate side of the story, it was a welcome contrast to hear from local activists about the impacts of mining activity on their communities. From Michigan to West Papua, Mongolia to Colombia, the stories shared a common thread: legal frameworks alone are not enough to combat bad corporate behavior. These witnesses attested to the need for mobilizing society, for protesting outside board meetings, for lobbying local and national governments and for cultivating a broad, transnational movement. One activist tried to impress upon me the ineffectiveness of legal tools such as the UN Guiding Principles, which he claimed do not enjoy the support of many local communities. By failing to address the precautionary principle, which requires a corporation to satisfy the burden of proof that their activity is not harmful to the public or environment, he claims that the Guiding Principles lack legitimacy and should be ignored.
As a lawyer, I respectfully disagreed with him, although I can appreciate and respect his point of view. Instead, I genuinely believe in the merits of John Ruggie’s ‘principled pragmatism’ in creating the Guiding Principles, which he describes as follows:
“an unflinching commitment to the principle of strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights as it relates to business, coupled with a pragmatic attachment to what works best in creating change where it matters most – in the daily lives of people.”
Today, corporations enjoy a secure place as prominent actors in our globalized world, even following the post-2008 paradigm shift resulting from the global financial crisis. Although instances of deplorable, egregious behavior abound, I do not subscribe to the viewpoint that all corporations are ipso facto evil. To my thinking, the best way to secure respect for human rights is not to freeze corporations out of the dialogue, but to hold them to account for their wrongdoing, and to encourage voluntary behavior and meaningful engagement with the communities in which they operate.
I’ll be posting more details on the Cerrejon mine (which was the subject matter of one of the presentations on Monday) after I meet tonight with local activist Julio Gomez in order to discuss how we as US and UK lawyers can best assist in the ongoing dispute with Anglo American, BHP Billiton, and Xstrata in La Guajira, Colombia. Watch this space!