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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

The Roundtable Response

Support for Activists Abroad

How can groups and individuals in the U.S. help activists working in other countries and in affected communities?

One potent way to help protect the environment abroad is to speak out for those defending it from within their own societies:

"When the first two hundred letters came the guards gave me back my clothes. Then the next two hundred letters came and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile of letters arrived, the director got in touch with his superior. The letters kept coming and coming: three thousand of them... The President called the prison and told them to let me go."

--Trade union leader Julio de Pena Valdez, imprisoned
by authorities in the Dominican Republic in 1975

The activists agreed that the issue of safety is very important for many speaking out in developing countries. These activists want to keep their protest non-violent, but they themselves are often threatened by violence. Western counterparts can provide assistance in this matter by focusing international attention -- through the media, the U.N., other NGOs -- on a situation so that governments around the world will watch what the government in question is doing to protect the safety of environmental and human rights activists. Dr. Owens Wiwa expressed that Western activists can, in this way, help ensure non-violent resistance: "It's not that they [the activists] want to harm people, it's just that they want to be heard. If you are the voice, then your intervention is making sure that the process is non-violent... That is where you come in: give us the voice so that we will continue to [protest] non-violently. And if we die, it's our choice, but just give us the voice out there."

It was recommended that environmental and human rights activists join forces more often and that they recognize the links between environmental and human rights issues in developing countries and in the minds of many people subjected to abuse by corporate or military power. Sometimes well-meaning efforts that focus solely on environmental protection or solely on human rights end up harming each other. Programs focusing only on environmental protection can end up causing forced relocation of local peoples, cutting local people off from their food supply, and damaging indigenous cultural systems, while programs focused narrowly on human rights can lead to deterioration of natural systems, resources, and biodiversity. Ka Hsaw Wa stated that he encounters activists documenting human rights abuses and those documenting environmental abuses but it would help those inside the country if they "focused more on the situations that connect [these issues]."

Indigenous Rights and the Environment

While there was consensus that environmental and human rights issues are linked, participants emphasized that indigenous rights in particular must be addressed concurrent with environmental protection. Frequently, indigenous people are those who suffer the consequences of environmental degradation the most and, conversely, those who have the least social or political power to make their protest heard. In these cases, assistance from Western activists and NGOs can make a tremendous impact.

Participants advocated respect for indigenous rights regarding land use and self-determination. It was stated that plans for resource use or protection should not go forward without the participation of those who rely on those resources for subsistence, and that local populations should be actively involved in the management of their resources. The issue of indigenous rights is a natural intersection between human rights and environmental protection. One participant remarked: "We need more respect, we need to build a global democracy, and the fact that you're human is how you get to participate."

Concern was expressed over the difficulty of exposing violations of indigenous rights. "There are literally hundreds of indigenous populations who are being violated of their human rights and that's under 'model democracies,' " a participant explained. Many times, indigenous populations are systematically deprived of their livelihood, often in countries where the government is friendly with the U.S., without international attention or pressure to respect indigenous rights. Human rights abuses for indigenous people and their environment are present in the United States as well, included the Navajo and the Shoshone American Indian groups. One participant concluded: "we need to re-insert indigenous sovereignty into the environmental movement; that's what the human rights movement can bring to us."

Corporate Power and Human Rights

The issue was raised among the participants that government has, to a degree, been replaced by corporations as a dominant power. As one participant noted: "We live in an era of corporate rule and it's very interesting to see groups that have [traditionally] focused on regulators and governments are increasingly talking about corporations as the groups who can give us the social change we demand." As this shift in power is recognized, it becomes clear that activists must target their protests toward a new audience. Representatives of Amnesty International brought up their frustration that they cannot call for boycotts or sanctions of corporations or states, a mandate that might change in order allow Amnesty to respond to a new dynamic in human rights issues. However, one participant reminded others that government and corporate power are interdependent: "Corporate power and government power are inextricably related. Governments still tend to be the sharp edge of the lance point, running the jails, hiring the torturers, but increasingly corporate power is the force behind the lance that is directing it and driving it home."

A concern was stated that not all members of the business community are part of human rights or environmental abuses. One participant commented: "I talk to people in the business community who are just as appalled by conduct that a small number of companies [perpetuate]." A growing public image of big business as environmentally and socially irresponsible has some inside the business world concerned. It was suggested that human rights and environmental activists keep in mind the idea of forming partnerships and networks with concerned businesspeople.

Selective Purchasing Laws

Dr. Owens Wiwa's call for consumer pressure on corporations is addressed by the use of selective purchasing laws, a tool for activists that is currently threatened by challenges under world trade agreements. One participant brought up the issue of selective purchasing laws as "one strategy that we can all participate in here in the U.S." to directly impact the state of environmental protection and human rights abuses in developing countries. Selective purchasing laws can be made at the local, state or county level and they ensure that the town, state or county will not do business with a company violating human rights or environmental protection. Selective purchasing laws have proved effective in cases such as the Massachusetts Burma law, which caused companies such as Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Eastman Kodak to stop doing business with Burma's destructive regime. However, these laws are currently threatened by international trade agreements and groups of corporations such as the National Foreign Trade Council, which filed suit against Massachusetts. Activists recognized the potential of selective purchasing laws and advocated unifying to protect them.

Multilateral Finance

While there was consensus that corporations are holding more power than ever before, activists still regard regulatory agencies and tools as important players in the struggle for environmental and human rights protection. One participant saw "regulatory threats and opportunities" in trade agreements and in policies of lending institutions. The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and the millennium round for the World Trade Organization are two upcoming opportunities for action singled out by activists. They recommended considering how corporations would try to influence these agreements and offering competing agendas which value human rights and environmental protection.

International bodies came under fire for sometimes working at cross-purposes with their ideologies, such as the example of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Burma, where UNDP funds were used to build roads to facilitate mineral extraction and warfare against ethnic minority groups. While it was acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to "constructively engage with the junta" in Burma, participants also expressed the view that agencies end up contradicting themselves when they impose strict separations between human rights programs and environmental programs when, in reality, the two should always be linked.

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