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

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