Where Business and Human Rights intersect.

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 04 Jun 2008

Many Australian corporations are doing great work overseas. They are investing in developing countries, providing job opportunities to local people and working closely with local community organisations.
Some Australian companies, however, are also ignoring people’s most basic human rights. They are forcibly removing people from their land, dumping cyanide laden waste in waterways that are integral to livelihoods, and, on the whole, facing none of the legal ramifications they would face at home.
The fact is, there are some businesses that could ruin it for the rest, and take Australia’s international reputation with them. Those businesses can have a dreadful and lasting impact on thousands of people in hundreds of communities.
For example, Australian-based mine Lafayette, which went into voluntary administration late last year, operated the Rapu Rapu mine in the Philippines.
Oxfam Australia, through our Mining Ombudsman project, has documented a range of human rights issues relating to the Rapu Rapu mine.
Cyanide-laden spillages from the mine into waterways reduced community food security and impacted poor people’s livelihoods, contrary to the right to a sustainable livelihood.
The predominantly fisheries-based local communities complain that that the poor environmental practices at the mine have resulted in smaller fish catches in surrounding waters. Local communities have also been aggrieved by an increased military presence on their small island.
In Geneva yesterday (3 June), the Human Rights Council – the United Nations body responsible for promoting universal respect for human rights – was presented with a report on human rights and good business practice.
The report, presented by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie, proposes a framework to ensure that the business community around the world respects the people whose lives are affected by their practices.
The framework calls on governments to close legal loopholes and gaps that allow companies to conduct business without respect for human rights. The report calls for action to be taken both in the countries where companies operate as well as in their ‘home’ countries, such as Australia.
“Governance gaps provide the permissive environment for wrongful acts by companies of all kinds without adequate sanctioning or reparation,” the report finds.
Professor Ruggie proposes a framework based on the human rights principles of ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’. The report draws attention to the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the need for more effective access to remedies.
The solution proposed by John Ruggie is of great value. Oxfam believes that the Australian Government has a role to play in ensuring that Australian companies operating overseas respect human rights in the communities in which they work – this is especially important in countries with limited capacity to develop and implement effective laws of their own.
Our Government has a leading role to play in pushing the business and human rights agenda at the international level if it is to fulfil its self-defined ‘creative middle power diplomacy’ role. The first step is to find means of implementing the Ruggie model, including by making available innovative forms of redress such as a Mining Ombudsman for overseas communities affected by Australian companies.
For too long the rights of some communities have been second to the priorities of business. We now have the opportunity to provide some much needed balance.
Andrew Hewett
Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial appeared in The Age on 4 June 2008.