Second workshop on strategic litigation against corporations
28 June 2011 Between 22 and 25 June 2011, human rights organizations met in Douala, Cameroon with lawyers, victims representatives and associations from eight different African, European and American countries to attend a workshop organized by ECCHR. The workshop, co-led by Misereor and Brot für die Welt, focused on the theme “Transnational Corporations and their Responsibilities for Human Rights: The Application of (semi) Judicial Instruments”. Participants discussed concrete cases evaluating the possibilities and risks of transnational proceedings against multinational corporations.
The workshop was the second in a series of regional events (the first was held in Columbia in 2010, the third is planned for India in 2012) designed to tackle practical questions of investigation, documentation and the demonstration of proof. Participants brought with them nine concrete cases of corporate abuse concerning businesses from Switzerland, France, Great Britain, Italy and the USA. The cases dealt predominantly with land grabbing, the precarious existence of displaced peoples, and agricultural contamination. Huge areas of Africa which were previously used for small-scale farming are now being appropriated by corporations from North America, Europe, India or China who wish to use it for mining, oil extraction or other agribusiness projects. Due to a lack of regulation and inadequate legal remedies, the population is often left without sustainable protection, putting both livelihoods and the environment at risk.
A range of experts provided advice on different options for gathering and presenting evidence, applying standards of proof and other practical issues involved in strategic litigation. Among those present were: Shubhaa Krishnan Srinivasan from the renowned London law firm Leigh Day & Co, Sandra Cossart from the French organization Sherpa, researcher Gavin Simpson, Earthrights International representative Jonathan Kaufman and Veronique van der Plancke from the Belgian chapter of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
While the experts agreed that professional scientific analyses were often required to prove, for example, the health risks created by an oil company’s pollution of water supplies, they stressed that communities can and should participate in investigating and gathering evidence. It is the communities, for example, who are able to record the profitability of land over a long period of time, noting down and photographing significant changes. They also advised local groups to document conversations and interviews with corporate representatives, either in writing or on audio tapes.
Recalling the findings of last year’s workshop in Latin America, the cases presented in Douala repeatedly illustrated the violent repression used to suppress those who attempt to defend their rights and interests or demand equal participation. Victims seeking justice have been imprisoned without due process or attacked by vicious dogs, their offices have been stormed by violent gangs, and their telephones have been hacked. Employees and trade union representatives have faced repression or dismissal from their jobs. The workshop offered participants an opportunity to discuss ways of addressing risks to their safety. Each organization was given a “Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders“, and provided with useful information on the mobilization of international protection mechanisms.
Both participants and experts evaluated the workshop positively. They felt that the event provided a unique opportunity to obtain advice on concrete cases and to forge international networks. Participants also found the practical sessions on research methods to be very useful. ECCHR sees significant potential for future development of the cases and the possible initiation of strategic proceedings, and will continue to advise the participating organizations in their ongoing activity.
To close the workshop, participants wrote a joint letter to the UK Ministry for Justice. They expressed their concern about a proposed law to cut financial assistance for the costs of trials and attorney fees. The organizations fear that such changes could significantly restrict access to justice for those affected by gross human rights abuses committed by global corporations.