Put Human Rights above the narrow interests of transnational corporations: La Via Campesina in Geneva

From 23 to 27 October, a delegation from La Via Campesina, comprising peasants from Asia, Africa, Americas and Europe, participated in the week-long mobilization of peoples, who were demanding a legally binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights.

As part of the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples’ Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and to Stop Corporate Impunity, the representatives of the peasant movement engaged in intense debates during the Third Session of the Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group with the mandate to develop a United Nations Treaty for Transnational Corporations and other business enterprises with respect to Human Rights.

The working group was chaired by Ecuador and for the first time, the Chairman-Rapporteur proposed concrete elements for this project, which were discussed throughout the week under the famous blue ceiling of Room XX of the Palais des Nations.

Meanwhile, members of the Global Campaign in Geneva also put forth a people’s draft of the treaty which came about after wider consultations in grassroots movements and civil society. The campaign members organised several events and workshops at the UN Square where different aspects of this proposal was elaborated upon by all members and allies of the campaign.

On 23rd October, while speaking at the press conference on behalf of the Global Campaign, Tchenna Masso from La Via Campesina, who also represents the Movement Movement of Peoples Affected by Dams in Brasil (MAB, Brasil), stressed that it was the duty of the State to protect the interests of human rights from the interference of multinationals.

“It is the task of the global diplomatic corps, at this time, to affirm the value and primacy of human rights, and to accomplish this week what their people expect in their countries to secure their rights.”

All along of the week, La Via Campesina made an effort to demonstrate that human rights were constantly violated by TNCs, and that the cases of Chevron / Texaco in Ecuador, Vale / BHP in Brazil or Shell in Nigeria, were just few among a long list of most egregious examples. Mohamed Hakech, from Moroccoa and representing La Via Campesina’s members of Middle East and North Africa, took the opportunity to be invited to speak at a panel of the OEIGWG entitled “The voice of the victims” to expose the situation of the region of Agadir, in Morocco since the influx of huge investments from French and Spanish, Dutch and American companies.

“This area, which contributes over 70% of the country’s total fruit and vegetable exports, is now wrecked due to over-exploitation of soils and water supplies. In the eighties one could find water table at 80 meters depth, now the peasants should go down as much as 250 meters to reach the precious resource – an impossible task for these small farmers who see their land dry out and their livestock scattered. They are forced to abandon their now worthless lands and face two possibilities; to go to the shantytowns of big cities and to swell the ranks of the unemployed – at best to become itinerant traders, at worst to embark on death boats in the Mediterranean – or to stay in their region and become precarious agricultural workers, working on their own lands, tragically on behalf of the same companies that dispossessed them.”

Ngoni Chikowe, a peasant member of La Via Campesina in Zimbabwe and also representing the Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum (ZIMSOFF) pointed out the attempts to harmonise seeds laws in Southern African region with the intent to allow transnational seed corporations an easy capture of peasant seed systems.

While speaking inside the UN he said, “Our national governments are being pushed into signing protocols on harmonisation of seed laws – allowing an easy entry into the African market for industrial seeds corporations – leaving us peasants wondering who is pushing this agenda. Our governments bring in the so-called Foreign direct investments with the promise of creating employments and give these TNCs an easy entry into our lives and territories.”

He also highlighted the devastations caused by extractive industries in Africa. Companies that are into coal, granite mining displace communities from their territories, cause environmental degradation, contamination of our water and rivers, destruction of grazing pastures.

“These companies bring in workers from very far away separating them from their families and exploiting them with impunity. Occupational hazards that arise of such exploitation are not compensated. Empty promises are made on their so-called social responsibilities – where they promise to build clinics, upgrade roads, electrify schools and so forth – but in reality they do not fulfil any of these obligations yet continue to evade taxes they should pay our local councils.”, he added.

In a side event organised inside the UN during the week Ngoni also said that women face the worst of violations carried out by transnational corporations and therefore having them lead the people’s mobilisation for a legally binding treaty is crucial.

Tchenna Maso echoed this view while speaking to Radio Mundo Real, “Of course, transnational corporations profit from capitalism, but also inequalities of patriarchy. Women around the world are the most exploited and at work add violence and abuse. But what is fundamental here is also that women propose alternative forms of resistance, they construct new discourses and tools. Here, in our movement for the binding treaty, we are also very strong politically. All the speakers at the press conference were women. “

La Via Campesina’s delegation also tried hard to show that United Nation’s Guiding Principles for transnational corporations ,which are purely voluntary and behind which many states are hiding – especially the European Union – are hardly enough.

Lynne Davis, representative of European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and a member of Land Workers’ Alliance in the UK, while speaking in a plenary addressed the representatives of rich States who were trying to block the adoption of the report of the 3rd session, warned them sternly.

“Surely we can agree that Transnational Corporations have no right to dictate the way we the people live our lives, our access to resources, our access to our lands, our food sovereignty. And yet as trade liberalisation spreads to every corner of the Earth that is exactly what is happening.”
“Already we have bundles of human rights, and they are violated every day. The EU and many states here claim that this is because individual states cannot implement these rights. Yet many of the same states have enabled multilateral courts to facilitate TNCs to settle their disputes with the governments of the countries in which they operate. How is it possible that Gabriel Resources can sue the people of Romania and, despite the huge strength they have displayed, the people of Romania end up powerless? It seems highly convenient that many of the states with strong governance in this room move the blame and responsibility to the smaller states to have better governance. Stop and consider the path that has created this global inequality in the first place.”

The main problem for affected communities and individuals is that their rights are currently uninsured because legal tools are out of their reach or co-opted by corporate power. This is why the binding treaty proposal goes a long way in developing new legal instruments for the affected people.

During a side event that presented the Global Campaigns proposal for a binding treaty, Judite Santos of La Via Campesina and a member of the MST, analyzed the articles relating to access to justice and reparation, as well as mechanisms that would serve to ensure the participation of social movements in decisions to strengthen democracy.

In addition to access to justice, information and non-repetition of violations, Judite stressed on the importance of obtaining redress. “In many cases of abuse, affected communities or people are not compensated. Take the example of the crime committed by the mining company Vale. Two years ago, 18 people were killed, so far there has been no repair, and the process may take almost half a century. The other example of non-redress is the murder of MST country leader Valmir Mota de Oliveira, a 10-year-old crime perpetrated by Syngenta. To date, there has been no compensation for the family, and the multinational responsible for the murder continues to operate freely in Brazil. “To guarantee access to justice, it is imperative human rights advocates can safely and impartially practice. The criminalisation of activists for human rights and climate justice is indeed increasingly violent”.

Federico Pacheco, of Andalusian SOC / SAT and member of ECVC, said at the opening of the session: “Let us not forget that the criminalisation and assassinations of many of our activists are promoted by transnational extractive firms with the support of transnational media. ”

It was a week of intense work for the La Via Campesina delegation, in a space which was extremely formal and as F.Pacheco pointed out, “a palace of hypocrisy, where we peasants and workers, must always interpret a language that is not ours”- pointing out the technocratic language often at use in UN sessions.

Yet, the workshops and discussions held simultaneously at the UN square was crucial in reclaiming this language of the people – where La Via Campesina also organised a workshop on food sovereignty.. Among the allies who spoke during the workshop were Coline Choquet, member of the Alliance for the Sovereignty Initiative, campaigning to make food sovereignty a constitutional guarantee in Switzerland and Melik Özden, CETIM, an ally of La Via Campesina, that is involved in the construction of the binding treaty and the declaration of peasant rights.

Members of La Via Campesina also delivered public lectures at the University of Geneva where Berthe from Uniterre, member organisation of La Via Campesina in Switzerland, shared the struggles of small scale milk producers. Mohammed Hakech from Morocco and representing La Via Campesina also spoke about food sovereignty guaranteeing self determination and dignity for communities.

During the week, members of the campaign also carried out a public action by barging into the office of Credit Suisse – a global financial firm – to protest its funding of extractivist projects such as the Dakota Pipeline. Actvists from Standing Rock led this protest that witnessed a brilliant display of people’s action to globalise our struggles.

The role of global institutions in facilitating entry of transnational corporations was highlighted by Park Hyung-Dae of La Via Campesina and a member of the Korean Peasant League. Mr. Park, in a powerful intervention highlighted the role of WTO in facilitating corporate capture of peasant food systems.

“The TNCs use international and legal tools, mainly the WTO and FTAs to expand to other countries. Today, I would like to share the experience of Korean agriculture. As voracious agricultural TNCs took interest in Korea, our agriculture has all but collapsed. The main example is rice. WTO is forcing us to import rice, rice that we do not need. Rice prices plummeted. Farmers started to get overwhelmed with humongous debt. Many committed suicide and those hanging on are barely doing so. In 1995, we had 8 million peasants, Now we have less than 3 million”, said Park while speaking inside the UN.

He also said, “The legally binding treaty that we are seeking right now is not an extreme measure. It is merely a minimum brake to rein in inhumane TNCs that are running wild. And that people, with an ever-growing growing solidarity – would fight to the end, until a binding treaty on multinationals and human rights is reached,until the peoples regain their sovereignty.”

In a press statement released on the 1st of November, the Global campaign noted:

The UN working group, tasked with elaborating a treaty on TNCs and human rights was due to finish its third session on October 27, when a representative for the United States – which has not participated in the three-year process after it voted against the resolution 26/9 in 2014, saying this “binding treaty will not be binding for those who voted against it” – unexpectedly joined a key meeting and suggested the working group would need a new mandate from the Human Rights Council to continue its work. However, the Secretariat of the Human Rights Council confirmed that the working group does not need a new resolution and that it will go forward with its work until a treaty is negotiated.

The closing Recommendations of the Chair-Rapporteur of the working group, Ambassador Guillaume Long, Permanent Representative of Ecuador in Geneva, committed to a road-map for the negotiation process for the fourth working group session in 2018 and to further annual sessions.

The Draft Report and Conclusions were approved by consensus and will be submitted for final approval to the UNHRC in March 2018. Furthermore, it was agreed that the Elements paper towards a Treaty proposed by Ecuador in this third session remains open for further comment until the end of February and will then, together with the outcomes from the 2015 and 2016 sessions, form the basis for developing the zero draft treaty for the fourth working group session in 2018.

“This is a victory for supporters of the process towards a treaty. Political pressure from social movements, NGOs and communities affected by TNCs’ human rights violations, was essential to overcoming obstructive tactics used by several parties, especially the EU,” said Lynne Davis, La Via Campesina.

But while waiting for this moment, the struggle continues and in our organizations and our territories it must unfold. It is, of course, a matter of informing our communities about the advances made so far, while also insisting our governments to take the side of the people during the next round of negotiations.

Globalise the Struggle! Globalise Hope!