The business of human rights in the Americas: No money, no justice

By Salil Shetty

Salil Shetty (centre) on a previous trip to Mexico meeting family members of meets relatives of disappeared people.

The action-packed corridors of the World Economic Forum can be exceptionally telling.

On the one hand, you cross paths with some of the world’s sharpest business minds, eager to find new ways to expand their enterprises and help develop young democracies along the way. On the other, you get to meet civil society leaders who see, first hand, the lives and livelihoods lost when governments and corporations trample over the human rights of women, indigenous communities and other socially excluded groups few care about.

As I prepare for attend the Americas edition of the World Economic Forum in Cancun I cannot help but think about the great progress most of this region has made in the past years.

Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade alone. They have been able to access jobs, put food on the table, see a doctor when they needed to and send their children to school.

On many counts, “development” has been good. But when it comes, as it is the case in the Americas, without a sustained long term plan that ensures it benefits everybody, problems do not take long to show.

In the Americas, alongside the shiny skyscrapers and growing industries, new schools and hospitals is another, very different story.

The region is still home to 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world.

The enormous income inequality means that across every corner of this vast, vibrant and resource-rich region, millions still face a dire reality.

This relatively invisible mass of people struggles to survive amidst poverty, violence, police brutality and high levels of discrimination. They live at the mercy of an ill-resourced and often corrupt justice system that at best, ignores them and at worse, blames them for all of society’s problems.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General Amnesty International

The stories behind the numbers are telling.

Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family, farmers in northern Peru, are involved in a dispute with the Yanacocha Mining Company over the ownership of the land where they live in Cajamarca region. Both the company and Máxima's family claim to own the land, but in December 2014, a court ruled that the family was not guilty of illegal occupation, as the company claimed. the company is appealing the decision.

Máxima and her family have reported being harassed by the police and receiving death threats. They believe these are an attempt to force them to leave the land where they live. 

This February, Máxima's lawyers reported that at least 200 police officers entered the land where the family lives and demolished an extension she was building to their house.

The family does not have any information about any investigation taking place into the attack.  

This horror story is far from unusual.

From Brazil to Colombia, from Nicaragua to Bolivia, millions suffer the dire consequences of the inequality perpetuated by corrupt and ill-resourced justice systems.
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Indigenous and afro-descendant communities are violently driven off their lands when powerful business decide “development” and profit are king.

Thousands of men, women and children live at the mercy of terrifying criminal gangs, who want nothing but to control them. People are ostracized and treated as second class citizens because of their sexual orientation. Courageous human rights activists and journalists are punished for delivering a message that those with power do not want to hear.

These are just a few of the examples.

Too often, the message seems to be: if you are poor, justice is out of your reach. No money, no justice.

Governments are responsible for much of these problems. But they are not alone. Across the Americas, companies, big and small, have been responsible by action or omission for many of the abuses that make millions of lives almost impossible to live.

Once the abuses happen, courts often seem to be only available to those who can afford them and millions of people are forced to become second-class citizens. The rule of law, an essential requirement for any country to function properly, is weakened, making societies unsafe for all.

You could argue that it is governments who have the ultimate duty to ensure their citizens can leave in peace and enjoy their rights.

But the truth is that companies do not operate in a vacuum, their profit comes from the societies they choose to work in and be part of and, as such, they have a duty to ensure that their actions do not affect the lives of the people living there.

Every single day, companies decide between respecting the rights of the communities they operate in – by consulting them and protecting their interests – or disempowering them, often to the point of threatening their very existence .

When they decide on the former, everybody wins. Because when human rights are respected and justice is far from an illusion, communities are safe and business es thrive.

And yes, it could well be the case that a few bad apples (companies) are leading to societies losing trust in the corporate world, but it is for governments and business leaders to address this before it is too late.

Tackling inequality with sustained concrete action is the only way for the region to truly move forward .

There is no quick fix for inequality but there are some steps governments and businesses in the Americas could, and must, take.

Strengthening the region's criminal justice system, tackling the links between politicians and criminal networks and implementing due diligence checks would be a good start.

Ironically, the instability and conflict that discrimination, inequality and the failing justice system drives puts at risk the very prosperity that governments and the private sector are pursuing. The price for failing to take urgent action is one the Americas can no longer afford to ignore.