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California Global Corporate
Accountability Project

Forging New Links: Promoting and Protecting
Human Rights and the Environment

January 14, 1999 Roundtable
San Francisco, CA

Case Studies of Human Rights and Environmental Abuses

As part one of the roundtable on human rights and the environment, Dr. Owens Wiwa and Ka Hsaw Wa were invited to speak to a group of environmental and human rights advocates (see complete List of Participants). Dr. Wiwa and Ka Hsaw Wa detailed their own struggles to protect human rights and their needs for information, assistance, and support from partners in developed countries. Following are summaries of their presentations and responses from roundtable participants.

Dr. Owens Wiwa is the spokesperson for the Ogoni people of Nigeria. His brother is Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmentalist who was executed by the Nigerian military government in November 1995. Dr. Owens Wiwa, a medical doctor and human rights advocate, escaped from Nigeria days after his brother’s execution and now resides in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto. In his presentation, Dr. Wiwa spoke of how Western activists can assist environmental and human rights activists in developing countries.

When the Ogoni movement, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples (MOSOP), officially started up in 1990, they hoped for a unified push for environmental protection coming from all peoples of the Niger Delta area. The Ogoni were for their belief that no corporation or group of people have the right to deprive them of their own sustenance: the clean water, forested land, and abundant fish populations they depend on for survival. However, oil interests and the Nigerian military spread stories about the Ogoni -- that they were terrorists, socialists, hungry for control of territory and money -- and they soon found themselves isolated in their struggle. Now that other peoples of the Niger Delta area have taken up the fight for their environmental rights, Dr. Wiwa stressed the importance of the support the Ogoni have received from Western activists and NGOs and his hope that such support will extend into the next millennium.

"What is going to happen in the next millennium? We are going to see more populations, more communities, come together to demand their environmental rights from corporations. What is happening in the Niger Delta will be replicated in many areas of the world, and that is where you come in. That is where you have to do your intervention."

Dr. Wiwa specified certain ideas of intervention for Western activists and NGOs. He advocated forming coalitions of individual NGOs to fight powerful global corporations, such as has occurred in his own example of Shell Oil Company in the Niger Delta area. Dr. Wiwa emphasized that corporations must be pressured to use the same standards of environmental and human rights protection in developing countries as they use in the U.S. and other Western countries. The practice of using double standards violates the idea that all men and populations are equal, the fundamental principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr. Wiwa stated: "No company should have any right to say ‘we are doing this here in the U.S. but we cannot do it in Nigeria, because the laws there are not [strict].’"

Dr. Wiwa also stressed the importance of providing training and education for environmental and human rights activists in developing countries. Recognizing the power of education, he recommended: "More people need to be trained so that we bridge the gap in terms of information management and utilization between the activists out here in the West and those out there in the developing world." Dr. Wiwa also advocated the education of Western consumers as one of the most effective means of dissuading corporations from committing offenses against the environment and human rights.

"Groups should continue to put the pressure on corporations here, on their shareholders, put the pressure on your governments, and to me, most important, on your consumers. We should let the consumers know, continue to let them know, that before some of these products come here, people are killed. Trees, populations are destroyed; their cultures are destroyed. I am of the opinion, after going to more than 100 high schools and universities here in the West, that many consumers, if they get to know in detail what happens before products come here, they will force the corporations to change. Because they [the consumers] are the ultimate power."

Ka Hsaw Wa is a Burmese environmental and human rights activist. The co-founder and director of EarthRights International (ERI), he has been working for human rights and democracy in Burma since he fled following a military crackdown in 1988. He has interviewed thousands of witnesses and victims of human rights abuses associated with oil and gas development, logging, fishing and mining in Burma’s resource-rich frontier regions. Ka Hsaw Wa emphasized the intimate connection between human rights and environmental protection and the need to address both issues concurrently.

The situation in Burma is notorious: a military dictatorship that is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, many indigenous groups who rely directly on natural resources for their survival, and rash destruction of natural resources by military and corporate practices. Ka Hsaw Wa described human rights and environmental issues in Burma as inextricably linked: "The brutal military regime’s very existence is due in large part to their exploitation of the environment. The regime sells resources and concessions -- logging, gas, mines, fishing -- to international buyers, then uses the money to purchase their arms and strengthen the military."

Not only does the Burmese military junta sell natural resources to outside interests, they often utilize resources themselves, directing army offensives against civilians in order to exploit surrounding forest resources such as valuable hardwoods. Disturbingly, the investment of transnational corporations is often used to justify military presence, such as the contract between transnational oil companies and the Burmese army to "secure" a pipeline and surrounding rainforest area. The army drastically increased its military presence in the pipeline region, detaining, torturing, and abusing villagers nearby who were subjected to forced labor or relocation.

"You can see how intimate the connection between human rights and the environment is. During the course of environmentally destructive projects, the military dictatorship uses torture, killing, forced labor, rape, and other human rights abuses to aid them in completing the projects. And the abuses, in turn, lead to further destruction of the environment. People must flee their homes and go to refugee camps where, it is complained, they destroy the trees, water and animals in those new areas. The solution is to recognize this inextricable link, and to fight for the protection of both simultaneously."

While the Burmese people might not use the vocabulary of Western activists, Ka Hsaw Wa declares that they "recognize even more clearly than we do that human rights and the environment are inseparable in their lives." He adds that those who work on environmental issues and those who work on human rights issues must see themselves as working together toward a common goal. He concluded: "we work at cross purposes if we do not work together."

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