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Opinion

Brazil: What is the human rights legacy of mega sporting events & construction projects?

A version of this blog has been published in Portuguese by El País.

Brazil is almost equidistant from its last mega sporting event (the 2014 World Cup), to its next (the Olympic Games). Only once before, has a country hosted them so close together. Whilst these sorts of mega-events hold great potential to offer a legacy of prosperity and human rights, it’s now clear that the 2014 World Cup missed an open goal, and the 2016 Olympics are set to do much the same.

Poor residents, victim of gentrification and forced evictions without consultation; construction sites without adequate health and safety policies for workers; and protesters violently detained by security forces. Scenes like these have been common in Brazil in the wake of its popularity as a host of mega sporting events. 

A major difficulty when addressing these issues is preventing rights abuses arising from business operations and providing remedy when they do occur. The challenge is even greater when megaprojects have, and continue to be, accompanied by large-scale human rights abuses.

Many people living close to the construction sites for both the World Cup and the Olympics have been victims of forced evictions with no access to information or consultation, and protestors have been repressed. There have also been health and safety issues associated with working conditions at construction sites. More information can be found here.

The government showed some concern for human rights around the Olympics when it cancelled a US 2 billion contract with an Israeli security firm because of human rights concerns. The company was going to coordinate security efforts during the Olympics in the country.

Recently, the Vila Autódromo residents complained that the city mayor of Rio has negotiated with private companies to build housing for middle class in the neighbourhood where they live, forcibly evicting at least a thousand poor families. According to residents, the City and private companies have excluded the poor for what they call "progress" in such renovation works.

These issues go beyond preparations for Brazil’s sporting events. Another problem is the pollution of the Guanabara Bay, which partly stems from the irresponsible behaviour of companies, especially oil industries and refineries, which contributed to an oil spill and waste water being released. 

What is the response of companies and governments to prevent and remedy human rights abuses arising from business operations?

The Brazilian government, in its response to the Company & Government actions on business & human rights platforms survey, showed interest in business and human rights issues. It highlighted actions it has taken to tackle egregious abuses such as slave labour, through the Lista Suja (Dirty List). However, along with 65% of the countries that responded to the survey, the Brazilian government stated that one of the major barriers to action in this area is a “lack of understanding or awareness of business & human rights in government."

This should not, however, be an obstacle for Brazil to meet and implement existing laws in the country to prevent abuses and protect human rights, nor to monitor and require companies to respect and adopt human rights policies and actions. Brazil has committed, for example, to do so by becoming a signatory to various ILO conventions. It is extremely important that the government also adopts specific policies that can fill in gaps, for example, in environmental protection where environmental licenses do not adequately take into account social impacts.

In general, human rights instruments made available by companies are interesting but have not yet been effective enough to prevent, mitigate and remedy abuses arising from their operations.

Take for example the companies Itaú Unibanco, Vale and Petrobras. In their responses to our survey, they indicated the existence of internal instruments to deal with complaints by and remedies to communities, individuals and workers.

Itaú Unibanco addressed this issue directly. It explained that human rights issues are managed within the company through "internal and external channels for reporting situations that are not compliant with the corporate policy and Code of Ethics guidelines, legislation, etc…". Asked what provisions the company has in place to ensure that grievances from workers and affected communities or individuals are heard, and examples of remedies provided, the bank said it "has an Ombudsman to whom grievances can be submitted. The channel provides employees with a...service on interpersonal conflict issues...[P]ersons receive the grievances and deal with them...through advice, conflict mediation and...investigation of the most serious grievances... ". In both responses, it is clear that there is a channel, especially for employees, but it is not so evident that resources are available to remedy abuses of affected individuals and communities.

Petrobras also offers such a service, but for internal and external audiences, and with persons to deal with them. In its response to the question of how human rights issues are managed within the company, it said that "the company has developed a Social Responsibility Management Methodology for Investment Projects...which contains guidelines and tools to help project managers...[of]...social responsibility initiatives...to mitigate negative social risks and harness the full potential of opportunities related to projects".

Vale also mentioned that it had started implementing a human rights risk management tool. Describing the provisions in place to ensure that grievances from workers and affected communities or individuals are heard, and what examples of remedy are provided, as Itaú Unibanco and Petrobras, Vale noted the existence of a channel with an ombudsman. But the company did not mention the possibility of having a person to actually deal with people as Petrobras does. On the company's approach to engagement with stakeholders (including workers, and local communities impacted by the company’s activities) on human rights issues, Vale addressed other possibilities of dialogue with the community in which access to remedy was mentioned: "...Vale’s social policy is therefore to develop a close relationship with stakeholders...responding to their grievances and demands and trying to work together towards sustainable solutions...Vale has been introducing a structured and permanent social dialogue with communities... ".

It would be interesting to know whether and how these different initiatives have positively impacted communities in the territory. Neither company stated how it has been able to concretely offer access to remedy to the most vulnerable to their operations.

It is necessary that governments and companies listen more to victims of human rights abuses. This is important in order to remedy abuses and improve companies’ actions on human rights. This would build a more dignified future in which communities can be part of a process of development that is not only economic but also social, and that they themselves can determine their future. Only in this way, will the legacy of the Rio Olympics have a more human focus than the World Cup.