Sat, Sep 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The human rights lawyers who challenge big corporations

Lawyers willing to take on powerful companies are hard to find, so the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has put together a global directory

By Elodie Aba  /  The Guardian

Illustration: June Hsu

I have spent the last year speaking to lawyers working at a grassroots level all over the world to understand their experience of protecting the vulnerable from corporate abuse.

It has been part of the work to build a lawyers’ directory for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which aims to help victims of abuse across the world find legal assistance.

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) to Brazil, Indonesia and Thailand to Russia, come the heart-wrenching stories of victims being denied justice as lawyers themselves become targets of abuse, however, there are also stories of unabated determination and powerful collaborations.

Corporate legal accountability is often associated with high-profile settlements out of the courtroom in the UK or US courts, like the US$83 million settlement by Shell earlier this year for its role in Nigerian oil spills.

However, there are lawyers on the ground all over the world helping affected people challenge abuse by companies and obtain justice. Their work is crucial, but often not widely publicized.

These lawyers use the tools available to them to make companies accountable for human rights abuses. They include domestic legislation — tort, administrative and criminal law — as well as international and regional conventions, but often these legal tools are not fit for purpose, allowing companies to act with impunity. In response, lawyers use existing laws resourcefully and challenge unjust legislation to forge a path towards justice.

Non-judicial mechanisms offer some opportunities to bring complaints to companies, but as AfreWatch (DR Congo) executive director Emmanuel Umpula Nkumba points out, these routes produce a recommendation “which is pretty weak in terms of arriving at a satisfactory result for the victims.”

The strategic and creative approaches these lawyers take with lawsuits means they often act as more than lawyers — they are also activists, defenders, mediators, campaigners and community leaders. However, even getting to the point where a lawyer is asked to take on a case is a challenge.

Several lawyers stressed that people are generally unaware of their rights, of relevant legislation and of the way to use these tools, making them unable to stake a claim in an effort to uphold their rights. Even when they are aware, the duration and financial cost of launching legal proceedings deters many from seeking justice.

In most cases, plaintiffs do not have the financial resources to pay a lawyer and legal aid does not exist for corporate accountability cases. Lawyers, therefore, might receive no remuneration for their hard and hazardous work. It is often thanks to external funding that they can help plaintiffs in their quest for justice against corporations, but this support rarely covers all their needs.

“We only have four lawyers working for us and often we need to ask others for help, but we cannot compensate them,” said Sor Rattanamanee Polkla of the Community Resource Center in Thailand.

When a case makes it to the courts the process is often marred by dysfunctional judiciaries in which judges lack training on how to deal with business and human rights cases. Often, these issues are simply not seen as a priority among the plethora of cases presented to courts.

Without judicial independence, victims of abuse involving companies might never obtain justice, especially in large infrastructure or extractive projects where those companies receive major concessions from the government.

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