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LATIN AMERICA
“A new way to violate human rights”
Elsa Chanduví Jaña
6/19/2008
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Region lacks checks on operations of European transnationals, alternative tribunal finds.

The verdict of the Permanent People´s Tribunal (PPT) was clear: more than 20 transnational European corporations operating in the region recklessly violated workers´, women´s and citizen’s rights, some while damaging the environment.

Some of the guilty parties in the May 13-16 trial in the Peruvian capital, Lima, included British miner Monterrico Metals, Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Swiss chemical company Syngenta AG and Norway’s Dyer Coriat Holding, or Camposol.

The trial — whose verdict is mostly symbolic — was held during the People´s Summit “Linking Alternatives 3”, which went on alongside a biennial high-level summit of European, Latin American and Caribbean leaders.

“The testimonies … gave sufficient basis to conclude that there was indeed irregular behavior, to put it lightly, on the part of the transnationals, which is part of a system of exploitation and a new way to violate human rights in our countries,” said Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, a Nicaraguan lawyer who was a member of the PPT´s panel. She added that governments have been complicit in these violations.

“The transnationals are not the only ones responsible,” she said. “We must be clear that there is a shared responsibility with our governments, which have the responsibility to guarantee respect for human rights for their inhabitants, and in this case they had to urge these transnationals to respect our laws. But because of the widespread corruption … with the state-business owner confusions that exist sometimes in our countries, they allowed absolutely everything.”

Peruvian lawyer Giulia Tamayo, another judge on the PPT´s panel said that many times, citizens who were or are in the public sphere, in the government, often serve private business and do so without any qualms.

“It´s as if there is no ethical conflict,” she said. “But we have seen how they´ve used privileged information, how they have advanced privatizations which have offered no benefit to the population, but instead they themselves received a great benefit. They have even taken loans that we had to pay off later, in theory for assistance for our countries to privatize.”

The tribunal found that the European companies were guilty of union busting – such as massive and unjust firings of unionized workers by the agricultural company Camposol in Peru. In Nicaragua, the highly toxic pesticide Nemagon, used on bananas, was distributed widely by Shell. Repsol was found to have caused serious environmental damage in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries.

Criteria for precaution
The tribunal analyzed 24 cases involving transnational companies in 12 production sectors. These companies already had records of violating workers´ rights, women´s rights, or environmental damage, and the final outcome was published in the PPT´s final ruling.

The case review began in Vienna, Austria in 2006, and other cases were previously heard in Nicaragua and Spain.

“The option has been precisely to illustrate who is responsible for these behaviors that we have observed, and we believe there is a great challenge” to get for the transnationals to “be accountable for these kinds of abuses, and that the populations [affected] don´t only have the possibility of receiving reparations … but also can have efficient measures to impede” that they happen again, Tamayo said.

For example, Tamayo said that opportune actions to stop populations from being subjected to forced displacements from their land or projects with high environmental risks from being allowed to operate, are necessary.

“Foreign investment cannot continue getting preferential or privileged treatment over criteria for precaution that should include the environment and the personal dignity,” she said.

Achieving justice
The PPT´s rulings, while not legally binding, issues opinions on moral and ethical grounds. It was born out of the Russell Tribunal, or War Crimes Tribunal that heard cases of human rights violations committed by the United States during the Vietnam War.

Some experts and activists say that there needs to be a criminal court to hear cases involving transnational companies.

“An enormous amount of power is concentrated in the transnational companies now that prevents justice from being served,” Tamayo said. “Now is the time to build mechanisms to control them and make sure they are accountable.”

“By not doing so, the damages, as we are now seeing, will continue to multiply and impunity, that lamentable element that allows the abuses to continue or become more severe … will be a part of the agenda,” she added.

In the region many academic and activists circles are discussing the construction of these mechanisms, but as Tamayo said it will be impossible to become a reality without the mobilization of the people.


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François Houtart, PPT´s president, reads the tribunal´s final verdict during the People´s Summit. (Photo: William Chico)
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