Human Rights and Big Business in the COVID-19 Era: 5 Trends to Watch

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As the COVID-19 crisis spreads, human rights activists are keeping a close watch on how governments, especially authoritarian leaders, have used the opportunity to consolidate power. But governments are not the only ones we should be watching. A number of big businesses are taking advantage of this moment to pursue profit at the expense of human rights and the environment.

We’re keeping tabs on these cases. Many business leaders are acting reasonably — prioritizing protections for their employees and communities, while trying to keep their operations afloat. Others have taken a more opportunistic approach.

Here are five worrisome trends that we’ve noticed so far.

#1 While no one is watching, environmental harms multiply

As the world shelters in place, concerned citizens are less able to monitor and report on corporate abuses.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for example, indigenous communities have played an essential role in safeguarding the Amazon from illegal logging and other destructive business practices. Indigenous communities in Brazil actively patrol their lands to report illegal logging, despite sometimes violent retaliation from the loggers. But many of these communities have isolated themselves and limited their patrols in order to prevent infection. 

Without their watchful eyes, the Amazon has entered a very vulnerable period. According to scientists and indigenous communities, illegal loggers appear to be taking advantage of the pandemic to increase their activities. There are fears that the coming months will be particularly destructive in the Amazon, especially after the rainy season ends in a few weeks.

#2 A dangerous time for human rights defenders

Even before the pandemic, attacks on human rights defenders — especially those working on environmental and land issues — had reached crisis levels. In 2019, the Business and Human Rights Resource Center recorded 572 attacks on human rights defenders who had raised concerns about business-related human rights abuses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the dangers for human rights defenders. There are fewer witnesses around. It is more difficult to relocate people to safety. 

Over one-third of last year’s killings of human rights defenders took place in Colombia. The Guardian reported that assassins in Colombia are exploiting shelter-in-place orders to find and target activists. Since Colombia’s quarantine began on March 19, at least six defenders have been killed, including two indigenous leaders. While the details of these particular cases remain unclear, many assassins in Colombia frequently target environmental and land defenders who have opposed extractive industry projects. In the past few weeks, several defenders working on environmental issues have received credible threats to their lives. 

There are also reports of human rights defenders being arrested for peacefully opposing business activities. In the Philippines, for example, authorities have reportedly arrested an indigenous activist and community leaders who were opposing mining projects. Around the world, numerous human rights organizations have raised concerns that the risks of dying from COVID-19 are exponentially higher in prisons, due to overcrowding, poor hygiene, and limited medical care.

#3 A golden opportunity to spy on everyday citizens

At least 11 governments have ramped up their surveillance of citizens’ smartphones and internet usage. The information gleaned from some of this surveillance can play an essential public health role by helping governments to track the locations of outbreaks and predict how COVID-19 is spreading. But human rights organizations and privacy advocates have expressed concern that some governments have gone too far.

China, for example, has required citizens to download software to their phones and scan themselves at checkpoints in public places. South Korea began posting detailed information about the location and movements of each person who tested positive for coronavirus. Russia has used the opportunity to begin installing “one of the world’s largest surveillance camera systems,” which includes facial recognition technology. 

To implement these surveillance systems, governments have turned to technology companies for help. Some of these companies have dubious human rights records. For example, at least 12 governments are reportedly working with the NSO Group, which has sold spyware and hacking tools to autocrats, to track the spread of the virus using people’s location data.

As Mona Sloane and Albert Fox Cahn warned in The Daily Beast, “It should come as no surprise that the very same data that helps public health authorities to carry out contact tracing in the context of COVID-19 can easily be repurposed to monitor political movements, religious minorities, and other historically marginalized communities.” 

#4 The benefits of cozying up to strongmen

Some authoritarian leaders have used their COVID-19 emergency powers to consolidate their power and enrich their networks. The New York Times reported that numerous world leaders have made power grabs, including in countries with democratic political systems. Businesses have cozied up to these leaders to reap the benefits.

In the United States, the fossil fuel industry has capitalized on its close ties to the Trump Administration to pursue a wishlist of self-enriching reforms. At the request of Big Oil, the Trump Administration has decided to stop enforcing environmental protection rules, effectively allowing companies to break the law. This is particularly dangerous, because studies show that those living with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19.  

The industry also convinced the Trump Administration to bypass Congress and buy billions of dollars of fossil fuels for the strategic petroleum reserve, while also asking for tax relief – despite already being one of the most subsidized and artificially propped-up industries in the world. This is only the tip of the iceberg; the full list of the fossil fuel industry’s misdeeds during the crisis is long and troubling. 

Meanwhile, several governments have followed Trump’s lead and announced their own intentions to roll back environmental protections.

#5 Maximizing profit by endangering laborers

The pandemic has also disrupted supply chains around the world. These disruptions have opened up opportunities for unscrupulous actors to turn people’s desperation into profit.

For example, manufacturers of medical supplies have experienced a dramatic increase in orders. Human rights activists allege that Malaysian medical glove manufacturing companies, which produce about 65% of the medical gloves being used worldwide, have a history of using forced labor and exploitation of migrant laborers. Consumer governments have decided to look the other way in order to obtain much-needed medical supplies.

In South Africa, authorities arrested the owner of a company, a Chinese national, who had allegedly locked 14 workers in a factory and forced them to make protective masks.

In Latin America and Central Africa, black market traders have reportedly preyed upon millions of people who depend on artisanal gold mining for their survival. Closed borders and travel restrictions have shut down gold supply chains. Even before the pandemic, artisanal miners tended to work under dangerous conditions and live in extreme poverty, often falling prey to organized crime networks and security forces that seize control of the supply chains.

Now, with normal supply chains in disarray, opportunistic mineral traders are threatening these communities’ ability to buy food. With no other sources of income, artisanal miners in Latin America are being forced to sell their gold at steep discounts to informal traders who provide them with “take it or leave it” offers. With the international price of gold at record high levels, businesses and criminal networks are making a killing off of artisanal gold miners. 

We must prioritize people over profits

Businesses and governments should not be taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to consolidate power, profiteer, and undermine human rights. But it is happening. 

Eventually, the pandemic will subside. At that time, we will need to remain vigilant rather than let down our guard. Will authoritarian leaders try to keep emergency restrictions in place, indefinitely limiting basic rights? As governments face pressure to kickstart their economies, will they let businesses plow over human rights and the environment in the name of “fast tracking” economic growth? 

As businesses show their true colors, we need to bear witness, keep a record, and organize against corruption. 

Citizen activists can help. When you witness or hear examples of corporate abuse during the COVID-19 crisis, let us know. Share what you find on Twitter and use the hashtag #CancelCorporateAbuse.

 

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