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Not long ago, we stood at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (“IACtHR”) to submit oral arguments stating that corporations do not have human rights. Some judges raised further questions in the arguments, so we also recently filed a written submission on these questions. Judges wanted to know whether all entities – such as indigenous organizations and labor unions, in addition to corporations – have the same rights, and what should happen when members of indigenous or labor groups are injured.

Our position is simple. Corporations do not have human rights, but members of indigenous organizations and labor unions do. Shareholders of a corporation, which could be other corporations or even governments, also lack those rights. Even in cases where shareholders are human beings, the separation of their assets means that injuries suffered by the corporation are not injuries to the rights of the shareholders.

The IACtHR has previously allowed indigenous and tribal communities to assert their right to collective ownership over their ancestral lands and, thereby, “their oral expressions and traditions, their customs and languages, their arts and rituals, their knowledge and practices in connection with nature, culinary art, customary law, dress, philosophy, and values.” The IACtHR has recognized and protected indigenous peoples’ human rights to juridical personality, health, economic and social rights, cultural identity and religious freedom, labor rights, self-determination as well as the right to mental and moral integrity.

Likewise, the IACtHR found that in cases where individual labor rights are violated, there can also be violations of human rights held by labor unions.  The IACtHR found that an environment of violence and summary executions of union leaders could affect both union members individually as well as the union collectively, since “the ability of groups to organize themselves to protect their interests could be reduced” by a violent environment, and such an environment also “constituted a grave obstacle for the exercise of freedom of association.” Under those circumstances both the union and the workers could be victims of human rights violations. There are several union rights that can be vindicated by unions at the IACtHR, including but not limited to the right to juridical personality, freedom of association and autonomy.

We hope the IACtHR will recognize the obvious reality that indigenous organizations and labor unions – which have members who have human rights, and which are created to defend their members’ rights – are fundamentally different from corporations, which are owned by shareholders, who are considered legally distinct from the corporation, for the purpose of making money.