International Corporate Accountability

During the week of June 29 to July 3, I had the unique opportunity to be in a room full of human rights lawyers and advocates representing their respective organizations from the Global North and Global South. These brilliant and inspiring minds were brought together by an Educational Exchange Conference hosted by ProDESC. The organizations present were CAJAR, HRLN, CALS, ERI, SERI, PODER, ECCHR, and the Bertha Foundation. One by one, each organization presented its focus areas, cases, strategies, challenges, successes, and opportunities. Every presentation was followed by a question and answer session. It was during one of these sessions that the following analogy was used: The interaction between human rights defenders and corporations is like “mosquitoes biting a giant.”

This comparison was brought up when we were discussing the various strategic opportunities available for human rights defenders to challenge systems of power, specifically corporations. During the course of completing my report on the right to free, prior, and informed consultation of the indigenous Zapotec community in Juchitán, Oaxaca, where a transnational corporation aspires to build a wind energy park, I found myself coming back to one question: Who is holding this corporation accountable for their role in human rights violations? It turns out that NGOs from both the developed and developing world are asking themselves the same thing because their calls for greater accountability for human rights violations by transnational corporations are growing stronger.

As of yet, no international legally binding instrument exists to hold corporations accountable for failing to uphold human rights standards. International human rights standards have traditionally been the responsibility of governments. The first call for such an instrument began in the 1960s. Since then, the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights have been established. Nevertheless, without an accompanying legally binding document, it is doubtful how effective these truly are. While it is unclear when or whether the demand for such a document will be met, one thing is certain: transnational corporations have and are only continuing to gain power and influence on the world economy that often negatively impact the human rights of communities where these corporations conduct operations. Without a uniform set of standards at both the national and international level, those affected by such acts, like the indigenous Zapotec people, will remain vulnerable without meaningful access to the justice they not only deserve, but to which they are entitled.

So, I leave you to ponder this question: until we have effective national and international standards to hold transnational companies accountable for human rights violations, how do we bite in the right place to get the giant to scratch? The answer we came up with during the conference seems rather simple: Follow the money.

For more information about this issue, read this article and visit the UN Human Rights website.

-Kacy Cuenta

The Indigenous Zapotec Community of Juchitán

Kacy Cuenta (center), surrounded by her ProDESC team

Kacy Cuenta (center), surrounded by her ProDESC team

For the past twelve weeks, I had the opportunity to advocate for the rights of the indigenous Zapotec community as a Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) Fellow in Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC) in Mexico City. As a non-governmental organization, ProDESC’s mission is to defend the human rights of underrepresented workers and communities in Mexico so as to promote a higher quality of life and participation in their own development. It is this very mission combined with my interest in corporate accountability that attracted me to this organization. I contributed to ProDESC’s current work regarding human rights violations in the consultation process for the implementation of a wind energy project in Juchitán.

International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 provides that States are obligated to guarantee the indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation when legislative or administrative decisions and actions could directly impact their lives. To comply with this, Mexico devised a Protocol for the development of wind energy projects. The State initiated the consultation process in November 2014. ProDESC formed an Observation Mission to ensure that the process was being conducted according to the highest standards of human rights. I was tasked with composing a report that compared the Protocol with (1) the reports published from the Observation Mission and (2) the standards established in Saramaka People v. Suriname and Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku v. Ecuador, two court cases decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

I have identified that in the first two phases alone, most of the principles of the Protocol have not been followed. The Zapotec peoples are being coerced by authoritative representatives of the wind energy company, prevented from gathering to discuss their interests prior to sessions, limited by biased moderators from participating, and living in a hostile environment filled with threats and attacks of intimidation. Moreover, the community’s customs and way of life are not respected; for example, interpreters are unqualified and inconsistently translate pertinent information. Above all, the information provided is lacking and requests for further information are not met; therefore, they are unable to properly evaluate the project. Mexico has failed to ensure that the Zapotec peoples are properly consulted on the implementation of a wind energy park that could affect their cultural and social life. Subsequently, Mexico is also violating their fundamental right to cultural identity.

It is clear that simply having a written Protocol that incorporates international mechanisms is not enough; enforcement of said Protocol is essential. More often than not, such enforcement is lacking because corporations exploit the State’s need for economic development. States cannot fall prey to this. They must remain grounded and not allow the economic interests of corporations to take precedence over the human rights of the potentially affected community. In this case, the consultation process is one of the first Mexico has tried to conduct. Therefore, it is crucial that the violations already identified be addressed to prevent a bad precedent from being established.

-Kacy Cuenta