Corporations

  • Issue
© Amnesty International

Overview

Globalization has changed the world we live in. It presents new and complex challenges for the protection of human rights.

Economic players, especially multinational companies that operate across national borders, have gained unprecedented power and influence across the world.

Companies have an enormous impact on people’s lives and the communities in which they operate. Sometimes the impact is positive - jobs are created, new technology improves lives and investment in the community translates into real benefits for those who live there.

But Amnesty has exposed countless instances when corporations exploit weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation with devastating effect on people and communities.

There are few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent corporate human rights abuses or to hold companies to account. Amnesty is working to change this.

In Bodo Creek in Ogoniland, Nigeria, two oil spills (August/December 2008) destroyed thousands of livelihoods. Oil poured from faults in the Trans-Niger Pipeline for weeks, covering the area in a thick slick of oil. Amnesty and our partner, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, worked with the community to get the oil company responsible - Shell - to clean up its mess and pay proper compensation. Finally in December 2014, the Bodo community won a long-awaited victory when Shell paid out an unprecedented £55million in compensation after legal action in the UK.

“We are thankful to all that have contributed in one way or another to the conclusion of this case such as the various NGOs, especially Amnesty International, who have come to our aid.” said Chief Sylvester Kogbara, Chairman of the Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders.

Children outside the former Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India. 1 December 2012. © Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage

The problem

States have a responsibility to protect human rights. However, many are failing to do this, especially when it comes to company operations - whether because of lack of capacity, dependence on the company as an investor or outright corruption.

Injustice incorporated

Companies operating across borders are often involved in severe abuses, such as forced labour or forcibly relocating communities from their lands.

Unsurprisingly, abuses are particularly stark in the extractive sector, with companies racing against each other to mine scarce and valuable resources. Traditional livelihoods are destroyed as land is contaminated and water supplies polluted such as in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The impact can be particularly severe for Indigenous Peoples because their way of life and their identity is often closely related to their land.

Affected communities are frequently denied access to information about the impact of company operations. Meaning they are excluded from participating in decisions that affect their lives.

Although it is now widely accepted that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights, too many times profits are built on the back of human rights abuses. Despite laws in many countries that allow companies to be prosecuted, governments rarely even investigate corporate wrongdoing.

When communities’ attempt to get justice they are thwarted by ineffective legal systems, a lack of access to information, corruption and powerful state-corporate alliances. Worryingly, when the poor cannot secure justice, companies learn that they can exploit poverty without consequences.

What Amnesty is calling for

Prevention: all companies should be required by law to take steps to identify, prevent and address human rights abuses (known as due diligence).
Accountability: companies must be held to account for abuses they commit.
Remedy: people whose rights have been abused by companies must be able to access justice and effective remedy.
Protect rights beyond borders: companies operate across borders, so the law must also operate across borders to protect people’s rights.

The issue in detail

The accountability gap

Companies have lobbied governments to create international investment, trade and tax laws that protect corporate interests. But the same companies frequently argue against any development in international law and standards to protect human rights in the context of business operations.

Companies are taking advantage of weak regulatory systems, especially in developing countries, and it is often the poorest people who are most at risk of exploitation. Governments are obliged to protect people from human rights abuses, this includes abuses committed by companies. All companies must be regulated to prevent the pursuit of profit at the expense of human rights.

Bhopal’s 30 year fight for justice

It was once known as the City of Lakes. But Bhopal has since gone down in history as the site of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

In 1984, a toxic gas leak in the central Indian city left more than 20,000 people dead and poisoned more than half a million. Thirty years later, that tragedy has turned into a human rights horror, with survivors and activists leading a relentless fight for justice.

The players in this battle have taken on mythical overtones — David and Goliath come to mind. On the one side are thousands of people who somehow survived the gas leak and are searching for truth, justice and compensation; on the other, the multinational corporations Union Carbide and Dow, along with the US and Indian governments who have effectively protected them.

The story of what happened in Bhopal, and the struggle that has endured for three decades, is best told by the people closest to it: the survivors and their supporters.

Key Facts

100

Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries.

20K

More than 20,000 people died when toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

25 Years

It took 25 years for an Indian court to convict employees of Union Carbide India Ltd for their role in the Bhopal disaster.

100K

100,000 people sought medical treatment for a range of health problems after toxic waste was dumped around the city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in August 2006. The waste was created by multinational oil trader Trafigura.