Backed by South Africa, Gallegos urged the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, to immediately begin negotiations to end human rights violations and environmental damage by transnational corporations.In October 2018, 94 countries drew up a draft text for the binding treaty, which could address the issue of the complex global supply chain that currently makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for environmental damage or human rights violations. It should also give victims access to justice.
For two decades, Gallegos’s birthplace of Ecuador waged a court battle to hold Chevron (formerly Texaco), a US-based multinational, accountable for oil spills and for dumping 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into waterways and open pits in the country’s Amazon jungle, affecting 30,000 indigenous people and campesinos in the area. The South American country tried without success to seek redress in American, Ecuadorian, Brazilian and Canadian courts. Chevron in turn dragged Ecuador before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, for violating a 1997 bilateral investment treaty, and was awarded a hefty $112 million. A binding treaty on environmental damage would have prevented this kind of outcome.
Currently, there are voluntary guidelines for international businesses in place. One such set of guidelines is the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which instruct corporations to respect human rights but leaves enforcement in the hands of states. In high-risk sectors such as agriculture, mining and the garment industry, most companies disregard these principles, says Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, a newly established research initiative funded by the Dutch, British and Swiss governments.
Chevron, Shell and other multinationals easily avoid prosecution because no international legal framework exists to hold them accountable, Gallegos argues. A majority of UN member states and the African Union concur. Ecuador is not the only country whose citizens or government is trying to keep multinationals in check. In 2016, some 40,000 Nigerian fishermen took Royal Dutch Shell, an oil company, to a British court over oil spillage in the Niger Delta region. But the court ruled that a conflict with the company’s Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), could not be adjudicated in the United Kingdom.
Amnesty International reported in 2016 that SPDC’s operations in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region in 2015 alone had resulted in about 130 oil spills.“There are few places on the planet where the impact of multinational companies on the environment are more visible than in the Niger Delta,” Nigerian diplomat Hashimu Abubakar told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. After several rounds of consultations, the first draft of a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights was finally presented to the Human Rights Council in July 2018, raising hopes of adoption.
“Big multinationals always use their legal and financial firepower at the cost of people who don’t have a lot of resources,” Nigerian activist Esther Kiobel told Africa Renewal in an interview. Kiobel is the widow of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, a former government official and one of the
nine environmental campaigners executed by hanging in 1995 by Nigeria’s military government for protesting against oil pollution in the Niger Delta. She was a plaintiff in a landmark suit against the oil giant Shell.
“A new international treaty might give me the opportunity to get compensation and rehabilitate the name of my late husband,” adds Kiobel.After fleeing Nigeria and gaining US citizenship, Kiobel took Shell before an American federal court in 2002. After years of litigation, the court dismissed the case in 2013, claiming that a conflict between a Nigerian business, the SPDC, and Nigerian claimants cannot be heard in an American court.