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Multinational Companies and Human Rights - Is More Diligence Due?

by Miles Litvinoff

Posted: 02 Jun 2011

The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR) has published reports since the 1990s on the policy, practice and operational impacts of multinational companies.  During this period, a global dialogue has developed over the nature and extent of companies' human rights obligations.

In 2008 John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General 's Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, delivered his 'Framework on Business and Human Rights' to the UN Human Rights Council.  The framework emphasises the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the need for effective remedies where gaps and violations occur.  The main requirement of companies is to act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts.  In essence, this means to do no harm.

In ECCR's experience the extractive industries - oil, gas and mining - are a sector where serious questions arise about companies' due diligence in avoiding harm. Here are three examples.

Oil and gas in the Niger Delta

International oil companies have for decades been associated with adverse impacts on human well-being in the Niger Delta.  In 2008 the Economist reported that 'Life expectancy, once just below 70 years in the Niger Delta, is now around 45.'  Farming and fishing livelihoods have deteriorated, while environmental damage has accumulated.

Concerns focus especially on oil spills and gas flaring.  Routine gas flaring is illegal in many if not most countries but has been widely practised in the Niger Delta.  Local people allege that it harms their health, which the oil companies deny.  Evidence is mixed, and no baseline studies have been conducted.  ECCR understands that potential risks relate to the completeness of gas combustion, levels of particulate matter released, location of flare sites, movement of plumes, and possibilities of long-term cumulative and synergistic effects.  Whatever the chemical effects, local people voice fear and anxiety, which are in themselves a form of ill-health.

Canada's oil sands

In 2010 ECCR was among co-filers of shareholder resolutions with UK oil companies about the potential risks of oil sands (tar sands) operations in Alberta, Canada.  Oil sands involve the large-scale extraction and processing of bitumen by surface mining or in situ steam injection.  Native Canadians and others consider that the oil sands industry is a potential source of health risk.

Concerns arise from waterborne, airborne and soil contamination and from disturbance within mine sites and tailings ponds.  Contaminants including arsenic and mercury are reported as seeping into the Athabasca River and tributaries, and fishers report increasing abnormalities in locally caught fish.  An assessment of research for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Canada finds evidence of a link between the oil sands industry and risks to health, citing work by the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Cancer Board, independent researchers published by the US National Academy of Sciences and a whistle-blowing community doctor.  One operating company has itself projected a 10-20% increase in lifetime cancer risk for the 'aboriginal hunter-trapper' from arsenic-contaminated fish.

Native Canadian bands have started legal actions against the Canadian Government on grounds that they have a constitutional right to be protected from such impacts.  One of the scientists involved says: 'I really think it's time to cut down the [oil sands] expansion until some of those problems and how to reduce them are solved.'

Mining in the Philippines

In 2006 Fr Frank Nally, an ECCR Board member who has worked in the Philippines, invited former UK International Development Secretary Clare Short to assess social and environmental impacts of the mining industry in the Philippines, along with a highly experienced environmental consultant and a human rights specialist.  A subsequent visit to assess risks to food security involved a former senior World Bank environment adviser. Clare Short commented: `I have never seen anything so systematically destructive as the mining programme in the Philippines.'

The team visited Mt Canatuan on Mindanao Island, where a Canadian-based multinational operates.  The area is important for irrigated rice production and as a water catchment.  Local farmers and fishers there report damage to livelihoods and health, linking reductions in crop yields and fish harvests to pollution from mining operations.  When poor communities experience reduced food productivity, 'nutrition levels fall and families can no longer afford health services'.  The team received reports of people suffering from itching and skin rashes as a result of washing with river water or working in their fields, which they attributed to mine pollution.  Other concerns included the introduction of HIV/AIDS associated with migrant male workers and disruption of local people's connection with traditional lands, which undermines their psychological well-being.  Violent conflict and murder of peaceful environmental defenders have also occurred.

These examples indicate the risks when extractive industries operate among vulnerable communities, even when companies have apparently sound social and environmental policies.  We are led to ask whether current business thinking and practice are adequate in such cases.  ECCR believes that work is urgently needed to strengthen implementation of the precautionary principle and of human rights due diligence to ensure that extractive industries fully respect the universal human right to health.

Reports on the Niger Delta and the Philippines are available for download at www.eccr.org.uk/Publications.

About this author

Miles Litvinoff is Co-Ordinator for the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR).


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.