Will the UN be all talk and no action on business and human rights?

By Joe Westby, Corporate Campaigner

This week marks the 29th anniversary of one of the world’s worst ever industrial disasters: the infamous gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that, on the night of 2-3 December 1984, killed thousands. Many more have been left to suffer since then, given the abject failure by both the Indian government and the companies involved to provide survivors and their families with an adequate remedy and justice.

This week there is also a major UN conference on business and human rights. During this annual Forum, more than 1,500 participants, including myself, have descended on Geneva to discuss how to prevent corporate human rights abuses and ensure survivors are not forgotten – essentially how to prevent another Bhopal from ever happening again.

These two events provide an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made on business and human rights over the past decades – and how much more still needs to be done.

In Bhopal, we are entering the 30th year since the disaster – but action is needed as much now as ever. Far from being forgotten, the impact of the leak continues to be felt today, as a hundred thousand people have been left with health problems but largely without compensation or adequate medical treatment. Women have suffered in particular, and many are now leading the communities’ campaign for justice.

The scale of the failures following the Bhopal gas leak is staggering. Even as people continued to die, Union Carbide was able to divest its interest in the company that operated the plant and walk away. The abandoned factory site is still polluted, with an estimated 350 tonnes of toxic waste remaining inside. As the polluter, Union Carbide has a responsibility to foot the bill for clean up; however, its present parent company Dow has consistently denied all responsibility for the ongoing impacts of Bhopal.

In Geneva, I am able to enjoy the plush surroundings at the UN Palais de Nations, with fine art adorning the walls and a serene view over Lake Geneva. The abandoned Bhopal plant site, with its toxic legacy, is about 5,000 miles away but might as well be on another planet.

The discussions at the Forum are primarily focused on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,. But despite much talk of progress, there is little evidence that governments are actually willing to tackle the root causes of problems around business and human rights.

Governments in “home states” still turn a blind eye to serious human rights abuses involving their companies abroad. Many of the barriers to justice faced by the Bhopal survivors are systemic problems that require concerted action. However, avenues to justice seem to be closing rather than opening. Research conducted by Amnesty International into the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in 2006 shows that corporate human rights disasters continue to happen, and that serious obstacles to obtaining an adequate remedy continue to exist.

Meanwhile, companies continue to publicly support human rights, but when faced with even modest demands – for example to disclose payments made to governments or publicly report on their supply chains or their impact on human rights – they fight tooth and nail to oppose them. It is overwhelmingly clear that companies will not go far enough on their own initiative – which is why the UN has such a potentially key part to play.

The UN must take a much stronger lead in ensuring existing standards are implemented and strengthened – not only through guidance and support, but also by pressuring the governments and corporations that are falling short.

Here at the Forum, we would like to see appetite for concrete measures to be taken. As I listen to a great deal of talk but few real commitments, I find myself wondering whether we could confidently say that – almost 30 years on – the failures of Bhopal could not happen again today. Sadly this year’s Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh suggests otherwise, as concerns around both inadequate safety measures before the incident, and ongoing delays in providing compensation to victims, seem all too familiar.

People whose human rights have been undermined by business operations should not have to wait 30 years without justice. The frustration among NGOs over slow progress exhibited at the UN Forum is founded on the urgency required for the people of Bhopal and other communities around the world whose rights have been abused by corporate actors. We must mean it when we say “Bhopal: never again”.