The need to ensure corporate accountability amidst the pandemic

[click here to read in Spanish language] Across the world, government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted deep and long-standing systemic inequalities in the current dominant economic and development models. Messages, such as “stay home, stay safe”, social distancing, and “wash hands for 20–40 seconds with soap and running water” are barely relevant for those who struggle for food, decent living, public water, and basic sanitation. From our view as human rights defenders from Colombia and India, we see our government taking measures that are destroying lives.

In India, the lives of millions of migrants workers — especially those in the informal sector — were devastated by the pandemic and consequent state response, which also compounded the humanitarian crisis for refugees and stateless people. In many Latin American countries such as Colombia, it is the Afro-descendants, women, children, farmers and the popular sectors who are unable to sustain quarantine given the lack of food and economic resources to cover their basic needs. They are the most at risk and affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

Instead of providing emergency relief to those most in need during these grim times, governments continue to advance the interests of corporations over the rights of people. Such skewed priorities are in large part due to corporate capture, the means by which economic elites undermine the realization of human rights and environmental well-being, by exerting undue influence over domestic and international decision-makers and public institutions to make up a dominant economic system which prioritizes private profit over public good.

The Colombian state has been unable to guarantee universal access to drinking water, electricity, among others, and has handed over control and management of public services to private sectors and refused to approve the Basic Income. Due to these facts, the government continues, particularly in the COVID-19 context, to aggressively push for foreign direct investment and is also imposing legal restrictions on participatory rights of the communities and indigenous peoples. In this country, safe drinking water is beyond the reach of most of the indigenous communities because either the aqueducts are not there, or companies have influenced policies to limit water supply or conducted projects that have left water unsafe for drinking. The indigenous Wayúu communities in Colombia, for example, has been greatly affected by the operations of the Cerrejón open coal-pit mine owned by multinationals, the BHP group, Anglo-American and Glencore. In 2016, Corpoguajira — a government affiliated regional corporate authorisation entity on the environment in La Guajira — granted the coal company Cerrejón Limited, three licenses for the diversion of the only river this community has left. If the Arroyo Bruno tributary disappears, the people will no longer have access to water.

According to José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CAJAR), a Colombian human rights organization with a mission to defend and promote human rights from a holistic perspective, this diversion of the river has resulted in a considerable decrease in the tropical forest. For the Wayúu community, this territory is sacred. The Research Centre and popular Education (CINEP) recently reported that communities near Cerrejón continue suffering from problems with access to water due to the diversion made by the company from the Bruno stream. This situation is aggravated due to the coronavirus. The co-optation of the Colombian state by the private sector is how corporate capture threatens sovereignty and democracy, human and environmental rights.

In addition, social leaders are increasingly being targeted and killed in Colombia since the introduction of quarantine measures. Since 25 June, a group of rural communities from the region of Cauca, one of the most affected by the violence, are leading a campaign under the slogan #Nos están matando (#They are killing us) to demand that the government take urgent measures to stop the systematic assassination of social leaders who defend human rights, democratic integrity and our national interest. This campaign is in fact mobilizing many representatives of different unions and sectors towards realizing human rights and corporate accountability.

On the other side of the globe in India, an example of corporate capture involved the alcohol and tobacco industry. The sale of alcohol and tobacco was stopped when lockdown was imposed in India. Immediately after, the alcohol industry lobby asserted , that “…food and alcohol are essential commodities…”, following which sales were resumed in India from early May 2020. Alcohol and tobacco are not only non-essentials, but they will defeat us in our efforts to contain COVID-19. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco and alcohol both increase the risk to serious outcomes of COVID-19 including death. More worrying is the fact that efforts to ‘reboot’ the economy in India are resulting in ‘more of the same’ economic and development model that has largely failed most of our populations on sustainable development and contributed to environmental degradation. Instead of tightening the nook around the corporations, labor laws and rights have been suspended for three years to spur ‘economic growth’, and in another example of prioritizing the interests of corporation, the Indian environment ministry is considering large scale mining, infrastructure and industrial projects for environment, forest and wildlife clearances, even in protected areas, by hosting video consultations, and in some cases spending very little time to assess projects. For example, the Expert Appraisal Committees, like the one on industrial projects, have allotted just ten minutes to each project cramming 47 projects over three sittings.”

Millions of people globally are forced to live in crisis situations perpetually even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a crisis on rich and poor alike. We must remember that COVID-19 is a result of years of irreversible destruction of biodiversity and unabated plunder of natural resources driven by corporate greed, leading to contact with wildlife with new diseases. Governments have also largely failed to deliver on the promises of climate justice, in large part due to corporate capture of the narrative on climate. For example, research shows that the five largest oil and gas companies have invested over a billion dollars following the Paris Climate Agreement on misleading climate-related lobbying. This is forcing us towards another calamity which could also result in a ‘permanent lockdown’.

One opportunity to shift the balance towards people over profit is to advance progress on the binding UN Treaty on human rights and business, currently being negotiated between States at the UN in Geneva. For more than a decade, members of ESCR-Net- International Networks for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have been present in Geneva to advocate for a robust treaty that ensures our governments are driven by people’s agenda to end all forms of corporate capture and effectively regulate corporate actors. Moreover, the call to regulate corporations was included on the Global Call to Action launched by ESCR-Net in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Call was endorsed by 180 organizations from over 60 countries and advances collective demands for a just recovery and systemic change.

                           (published in Medium on 25 August 2020)

About the authors:

Martha Devia Grisales and Bobby Ramakant are human rights defenders based in India and Colombia. Martha is part of a social movement called Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida and is also a professor at the University of Tolima in Colombia. Bobby is part of the CNS (Citizen News Service). Both are members of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net).