Mexico can be a world leader in improving business conduct on human rights and the environment
This blog is part of a series 'Towards Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence'.
Indigenous people dispossessed of land by renewable projects, and lithium mining; banana workers’ leaders face death threats; modern slavery and forced labour in clothes factories – these are just a few of the allegations of abuse exposed recently in Latin America.
The urgency to address the real and potential negative human rights impacts of companies’ activities is on the agenda in many Latin American countries, but it is acute in Mexico. The situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) is an indication of this persistent and worrying context.
According to Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), 160 HRDs working on corporate accountability issues in Mexico have been attacked since 2015, making it the fourth most affected country worldwide. Data shows that the sectors most often directly or indirectly involved in these attacks have been renewable energy (hydroelectric dams, solar and wind projects) with 51 cases, mining with 49 cases, and construction with 24.
In the majority of recorded attacks, defenders were protecting the environment (59 cases) or territory / land (69), and there were at least 11 cases where defenders were allegedly attacked over protecting access to water. Killings were the most commonly recorded form of attack (40), followed by intimidation and threats (36), and arbitrary detentions and arrests (31).
These and other figures are similar in many Latin American countries, where democracy and public participation are being challenged. These challenges include policies and practices that may favor unsustainable projects and investments; corruption; political violence; the phenomenon of corporate capture of the state; and lack of mandatory human rights & environmental due diligence mechanisms and processes.
In general, some economic trends and public policies in Latin America still have at their core the promotion of infrastructure projects, large-scale agriculture, extractive industries, massive-scale tourism and energy projects, many of which are criticised for being developed at the expense of the human rights of the most vulnerable people. Myriad reports raise concerns about these projects and their direct risks to or impacts on access to water, health, the right to land, an adequate standard of living and a healthy environment, among other rights.
To discuss these issues, the UN, the OECD, the EU and civil society are organizing a forum in Mexico entitled “Human Rights Due Diligence and Reparation and the Impacts of Business Activities” on 12-13 March. The forum will convene a wide range of stakeholders and present an extraordinary opportunity for an in-depth exploration of the debate around a mandatory human rights due diligence framework, in what could be a milestone for Latin America.
The Mexican Government, the private sector, academia, civil society organizations, affected communities and international organizations will gather to discuss the existing international human rights framework applying to business operations, as well as the challenges and opportunities to incorporate these standards into a mandatory national instrument on human rights due diligence that regulates public and private companies’ operations on the ground.
According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, it is the responsibility of any company (either privately or publicly-owned) to respect human rights. This means that, among other things, companies should identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts.
For this they should carry out human rights due diligence, a process that ought to include assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed, all guided by intersectional perspectives - such as gender - and with the significant and culturally appropriate participation of affected communities.
The recently published report prepared by the Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, called “Business and Human Rights: Inter-American standards”, provides a needed regional tool to guide these debates and actions. It will be launched by the first time in Mexico at this forum.
The report recognizes that businesses are relevant actors for the achievement of sustainable development goals and for the improvement of people’s living conditions. However, the lack of effective mechanisms to prevent human rights abuses and to repair integrally the victims for businesses’ harmful activities, including transnational operations, will not only affect individuals and communities in the enjoyment of their rights, but also could impair the democratic system and undermine the fulfillment of states’ human rights obligations.
The report also emphasizes that corporate voluntary initiatives related to human rights, even though important, cannot replace legal business responsibility. Therefore, in setting up a ‘duty to protect’, states will have to ensure binding and direct obligations for businesses to respect human rights.
Mexico’s geopolitical position in the global economy, and thus in international supply chains, make it a country strategically placed for incorporating a human rights due diligence framework in its legislation and public policies that complies with United Nations’ and the Inter-American standards on human rights.
Having in mind the diversity of its industries, its commercial and economic relations, and being one of only two Latin American country members of the OECD, Mexico could strongly advance the implementation of its human rights obligations. It could also provide guidance to other state actors, by showing national and foreign companies how human rights due diligence processes can bring benefits to the state, to the private sector and, most relevantly, to their people.
On 12-13 March we have an unprecedented opportunity to collectively discuss these issues and set the building blocks for a fruitful roadmap toward the first human rights due diligence framework in Latin America.
Soledad García Muñoz is Special Rapporteur on economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Phil Bloomer is Executive Director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Photo: Nan Palmero, flickr CC BY 2.0
 The forum is convened by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the European Union, the Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC), Oxfam, Project Poder, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, the Focal Group of Civil Society on Business & Human Rights and the University of Monterrey.