Every once in a while, ERI gives me the opportunity to re-energize my work and build new connections by meeting creative, dedicated activists and lawyers who are fighting earth rights abuses in their home countries. Last week, in Douala, Cameroon, I got a major dose of inspiration while attending an international conference hosted by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Societé Nationale de Justice et Paix du Cameroun, aimed at linking local African human rights defenders with transnational lawyers.
This conference was the second of a series of related gatherings organized by ECCHR (the first was last year, in Bogotá; the next will be somewhere in Asia, next year), on the theory that human rights lawyers and other activists fighting corporate abuses in host countries may benefit from the advice, assistance, and accompaniment of lawyers in the countries where the companies are based. Over the course of the conference, I conferred with representatives of communities from several African countries and listened, amazed, at the courage and brilliance that these activists have brought to their fight against multinational corporations.
Sydney, a young lawyer from Zambia (and an excellent dancer), fights to expose the lopsided contracts of a Swiss mining company in an atmosphere of intimidation where the people have no right to information. Martine, a grass-roots leader from a community in southern Chad, has repeatedly brought attention to the environmental and humanitarian disaster of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline through complaints to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman’s office at the International Finance Corporation, and other forums. In return for her efforts, she has been jailed and forced into hiding repeatedly, once for over two years straight. Emmanuel, a former combatant from Sierra Leone, runs a leading constitutional and human rights law practice, fights for media freedom, and is pushing for advocates to use the regional African community courts as means to enforce states’ human rights obligations. Brice, a community defender from Congo-Brazzaville, has used smart public advocacy to persuade Agip, the Italian oil company, to devise a community consultation mechanism that has brought real environmental and economic benefits to forest dwellers.
These amazing activists are working against tremendous odds, inlcuding credible physical threats, and in contexts almost completely lacking in judicial and legal institutions that are capable of or inclined to protect communities from corporate abuses. One consistent theme was the lack of ability on the part of activists to gather scientifically valid, admissible evidence to prove their claims that environmental damage had been caused by the companies and was leading to grave health impacts on the local population. One lawyer, for example, pointed out that the nearest reliable lab that could test for soil and water contamination was in Paris, and that there was no way she could get samples from her community to Europe under conditions and in a short enough time that the results would be usable. Another common experience was reliance on international networks and connections to media, foreign organizations, and governments to protect community advocates from threats by the companies and the local authorities.
Being at this conference was a call to arms for me. What can we do to more strongly and consistently support African lawyers and activists – to help them protect themselves from violence and carry our their work effectively? And what can we offer them – both in terms of resources and the possibility of a judicial forum that may provide for accountability for the abuses they’re fighting against?