This Human Rights Day, Tell Congress To Cancel Corporate Abuse

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The fires that devastated the Amazon rainforest this year have thankfully dwindled with the arrival of the rainy season. But even as the smoke clears and the damage is assessed, we can expect more corporate-driven environmental destruction and human rights abuse in the Amazon and elsewhere as long as fossil fuel companies, agribusiness, and other corporate interests have free rein to abuse people, communities, and our shared natural resources. 

The Amazon fires stemmed in large part from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental regulations and push to open the area to mining, ranching, and logging. These actions are part of a broader global trend. With the recent rise of authoritarian governments, global civic space is shrinking. As governments act as instruments for global elites, corporations increase their power over communities, denying them their rights to land, clean air and water, threatening their lives when they dare to defend themselves. 

This is particularly alarming in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where standing up for your community might get you killed. Around the world in 2018, more than three people a week on average were murdered for defending their lands, with countless more harassed and criminalized. 

I first saw these kinds of abuses 25 years ago in the jungles of Myanmar (Burma) when I worked to stop the U.S. oil company Unocal from using slave labor to build the infamous Yadana pipeline. A quarter of a century later, I still see these abuses persist. Companies are paying security forces, paramilitaries, and organized crime groups to threaten and murder activists, wage smear campaigns against those who dare to oppose them, and weaponize courts into instruments of repression. 

These actions are inexcusable and within our power to stop. Congress should address the systemic abuse that corporations impose on people and communities around the world. The case of Chiquita Brands International illustrates why we need stronger laws to address corporate abuse.  

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Chiquita paid paramilitary groups in Colombia to provide security services for the company’s banana plantations. With financial support from Chiquita, the paramilitaries committed rapes and kidnappings and murdered thousands of farmers, workers, and labor organizers – crimes to which their members confessed. 

Chiquita was fined $25 million by the Justice Department for financing this paramilitary group, which was designated as a terrorist organization, but the victims’ families never received compensation. Over a decade ago, they filed a case in U.S. courts with the help of EarthRights and other legal teams. Earlier this fall, several of these victims’ cases were dismissed when a Florida judge disregarded evidence that clearly implicated the paramilitaries in these crimes. For the moment, a major corporation is once again walking away from atrocities it contributed to in the name of profit. The case is now on appeal, but at best, this means that these victims will have to wait several more years for justice.

Why is it so hard to hold companies responsible for violating human rights?

With nearly unlimited resources, companies can drag out litigation for decades, wearing down plaintiffs. In the Chiquita case, the company has sought every possible means to derail the case. The playing field is inherently uneven. Trying cases in the victims’ home countries can expose them and their families to the risk of retaliation. Moreover, our Supreme Court has increasingly restricted foreign victims from using federal courts to seek justice from multinational corporations. 

Chiquita isn’t the only company guilty of supporting offenses like these. Products that we use on a daily basis are tainted with human rights and environmental abuses. The recent deforestation and attacks on local communities in the Amazon are just one example of this. 

The United States should enact comprehensive reforms to strengthen accountability for corporations that violate human and environmental rights. Congress can do its part by introducing legislation to prohibit corporations from committing human rights atrocities and punishing them when they do. We have laws that sanction corporations for corrupt practices such as bribing foreign government officials. We should have the same for human rights violations. 

That’s where you come in. Urge your member of Congress to take action today on corporate abuse.

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