Report calls for tougher action to end abuses by British companies abroad

CAFOD and the Peru Support Group have welcomed the findings of a report, published yesterday: “Any of our business? Human rights and the UK private sector” by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, calling for a binding international agreement on business and human rights as well as action by the UK Government now.

Both organisations agree with the Committee’s view that some companies have a woeful record abroad. The report found that Government’s corporate responsibility strategy focuses too much on voluntary measures and “underestimates the extent to which
businesses have human rights responsibilities.” Too often business interests have been used to justify a weak approach to human rights and the UK needs to show much more leadership on this issue.

The report highlights the lack of a Government strategy on business and human rights which sets out obligations for companies clearly. It states that the ultimate goal of the debate on business and human rights should be an international agreement but that does not stop the UK Government from taking unilateral action now. For instance, the Government should stop firms with poor records from getting export credit support and should consider amending the 2006 Companies Act so that businesses have to conduct an annual human rights impact assessment. Peers and MPs were not convinced by claims that such steps would undermine the competitiveness of UK businesses.

CAFOD and the Peru Support Group submitted evidence to the Enquiry in May 2005, highlighting the case of British mining company Monterrico Metals. In 2005 27 men and two women were detained by police and held for three days at the Rio Blanco mine in a remote area of northern Peru. The citizens had been protesting against the development of the mine which is the major asset of Monterrico Metals. According to their witness statements, the protestors were held against their will and subject to physical and psychological torture. Attempts to seek justice through the Peruvian courts have been slow and difficult. In March of this year, Peruvian prosecutors accused the police of torture but cleared the mining company and private security firm Forza of wrongdoing. Thirty-one Peruvians who were involved in the protest are now pursuing their case in the English courts, arguing that the company must have known of the conditions in which they were being detained but failed to take steps to prevent or end their ordeal. The company disputes this.
Anne Lindsay, CAFOD’s Private Sector Policy Analyst said: “Today’s global companies can have huge impacts on the lives of poor communities but it’s very difficult for those communities to seek justice if things go wrong.

The report is quite right when it says we should be working towards an international agreement on business and human rights but that this does not stop the UK Government from taking action now. In fact we think that the Committee could have even gone further in their recommendations. A joined-up strategy on business and human rights is certainly needed, but this will only be a first step.

“The UK government also needs to look at the legal relationship between companies and their subsidiaries, and take preventative steps, such as requiring companies to publish human rights impact assessments for significant overseas projects.”

Gaby Drinkwater Coordinator of the Peru Support Group said: "We welcome the JCHR’s report and urge the government to re-consider its dependence on non-binding standards to regulate the activities of British companies operating abroad.

The UK government should hold companies accountable for human rights abuses caused directly or indirectly by their operations abroad. The foreign victims of human rights abuses by UK companies should have easier access to English courts, especially where the local justice system fails to provide legal recourse for victims.

In Peru, the rise and escalation of social tensions caused by foreign (and national) companies, particularly in the mining sector, is an ongoing cause for concern."

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Tags: 'Any of our business Human rights and the UK private sector', CAFOD, Peru Support Group

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