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I’ve just come back from a workshop in Amsterdam dedicated to one of ERI’s newest initiatives.  This project – we’re calling it the “community-driven operational grievance mechanisms project” – promises to help communities take control of the way that justice is served when their people suffer due to corporate activities.

When a foreign business starts operating on lands occupied by communities in countries like Myanmar (Burma) and Peru, the local people often end up being on the receiving end of all sorts of indignities and abuses.  This is especially true when those operations have serious environmental impacts (mining or oil extraction, for example) or take up large quantities of land (think plantation agriculture and industrial parks).

In the face of such large-scale development, vulnerable communities can lose control of their own fate.  From the initial investment agreement to the environmental and social impact assessment to the design of the project itself, companies (and often government officials) take advantage of opportunities to extract revenues while cutting costs and parceling out the profits.

This is often done without even consulting the community on whose land the project sits.  As a result, the community is sidelined, subjected to environmental contamination, militarization and intimidation, and loss of land and livelihoods, without ever having a say in the matter.

To make matters worse, when communities begin to suffer negative impacts, they often have no real access to the formal legal system. They can turn only to the justice and dispute resolution systems created by the companies that are taking advantage of them in the first place.  These systems are often called “operation grievance mechanisms” (OGMs).

OGMs are theoretically an opportunity for companies to settle disputes fairly, swiftly, and locally before they escalate into bigger problems.  In reality, companies often create OGMs to sweep problems under the rug, to give the illusion that they’re dealing with community grievances while in fact they stringing along desperate victims of human rights abuses through surreptitious and bureaucratic procedures that make no sense to them until they no longer have the energy to fight.  In some cases, companies have been accused of using OGMs to buy legal immunity cheaply, taking advantage of victims’ poverty and desperation to get them to accept inadequate remedies for serious human rights abuses in exchange for a promise never to sue the company.

ERI’s project aims to change that dynamic.

We want to transform the OGM into a tool for building community power to achieve a just resolution. OGMs should not just be another strategy for corporations to dissipate outrage for human rights abuse without providing real remedies.

When companies design OGMs, their own interests—not those of the victims—guide the process.  So why not work with communities to design an OGM that suits their needs, expectations, and culture, and then advocate for the company to adopt it and commit to implementing it?

If an OGM can offer remedies that the community sees as adequate, operates by procedures the community sees as legitimate, and involves decision making by people the community can trust, justice is more likely to be served.  As for the company, it will benefit from a better and more mutually trusting long-term relationship with the community upon whose goodwill the continuity and stability of its operations inevitably relies.

The Amsterdam workshop brought together experts on grievance mechanisms, government officials, and human rights advocates to discuss how (and whether) we can help communities design OGMs to take control of the way they seek justice for corporate abuses.  The participants brought strong and often conflicting opinions to the table.  Some, for example, thought that OGMs should never be used for serious human rights abuses.  Others thought the community-driven model went too far, and that the right corrective for the corporate-led OGM model would be a justice process that is “co-created” by companies and communities.  At least one participant doubted the point of OGMs entirely, and was convinced that the community-led model, while attractive, would not be enough to make OGMs a promising source of relief and remedy for victims of corporate human rights abuses.

[pullquote]What everyone agreed on, however, was that it’s not enough for community advocates to work through the processes and pathways created by the rich and powerful in hopes of preventing harms and obtaining justice for injuries.[/pullquote]

The community-driven OGM project is part of a greater movement to re-design policies and procedure to involve affected communities more deeply and holistically.  Community-based human rights impact assessments, community-led impact-benefit agreement negotiations, community land-mapping, and community-based development trust funds are just some of the many ways in which the human rights community is recognizing the fact that sustainable progress cannot rely solely on the availability of international advocates to argue on behalf of communities world-wide.

We need to change the power dynamic by putting communities and survivors of human rights abuse in the driver’s seat when it comes to identifying abuses and delivering justice.