Hearing the voiceless: The treaty process must listen to those affected by corporate abuse

Tchenna Maso, Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens)

Credit: Friends of the Earth International, Indigenous people protest against hydroelectric dams on the Madeira River, Brazil, 2006,

In an unequal world, access to rights is also unequal. A binding treaty for human rights and businesses must consider victims' voices.

This blog is part of the debate blog series on the proposed treaty and its complementarity with the UN Guiding Principles. We believe that an inclusive and open debate is crucial to make sure these initiatives deliver for everyone, and that the business & human rights movement continues its "unity in diversity".

Our history shows that, where our rights are not guaranteed, we must always fight for them. We began in the 1980s, with the struggles against the Brazilian electrical energy sector and the state dams. As Brazil still does not have a legal framework to address such matters, we must fight case by case to obtain compensation. While these negotiations initially engaged the state, in the 1990s - as neoliberalism advanced throughout Latin America - the Brazilian electricity sector was privatised - and it became necessary to engage business as well.

The process of negotiating rights is difficult with private companies. Dam construction works begin without any form of fair and prior consent or compensation. Private businesses abuse the consultation rights of indigenous and traditional peoples, even though they are internationally enshrined in ILO Convention No. 169. There is a lack of clarity around the environmental risks too. Communities are being displaced without any guarantee that their way of life will be rebuilt. Entire towns cease to exist and community ties are lost as a result of the construction of a new dam. In many cases, people who were farmers are unable to continue working with the land and move to urban settings. They lose their whole identity.

Entire towns cease to exist and community ties are lost as a result of the construction of a new dam... people who were farmers are unable to continue working with the land and move to urban settings. They lose their whole identity.

It is not in the interest of those companies to enter into negotiations to uphold human rights. Rather, social rights become just another commodity. For instance, third-party companies may be contracted to carry out surveys to ascertain who will be affected by a project. Often, those contracted companies deal with the communities in an aggressive manner, demonstrating ill-will and a limited understanding of the reality, and ultimately under-report the number of people affected. Families are frequently not given information about the construction of a dam, feel cornered by the encroachment on their homes and may be given just a week's notice to vacate them.

There is a very limited concept of who is affected by such projects. Many companies have a restrictive definition, as if a dam's impact was merely a technical and financial matter, without considering the social, cultural and environmental costs. According to the discourse sold by transnationals operating in the Brazilian electrical energy sector, financial compensation is sought for landowners. The rights of those whose land is to be directly flooded have only begun to be recognized after a long struggle. However, the full impact on the areas affected by hydroelectric projects is still not understood. The need for farmers to maintain a connection with the land and receive compensation in the form of productive land needs to be acknowledged. That is why we support the collective resettlement approach.

 The need for farmers to maintain a connection with the land and receive compensation in the form of productive land needs to be acknowledged.

Multilateral agencies have already recognized the need to adopt an economic and social concept of affected persons. Human rights are historical, the result of long struggles by victims around the world. The positive assertion of human rights is key for improving the affirmation of those needs, which are already recognised as universal. In an unequal world, access to rights is also unequal. Often, the rights of those whose voices are listened to are not abused. Consequently, a binding treaty for human rights and businesses must consider victims' voices.

Transnational companies are not collective actors that belong to the United Nations; they do not represent the interests of any collective group. Rather, their primary aim is to generate profit for their shareholders. Involving these companies in the debates concerning the treaty will give rise to a dangerous inversion of the human rights perspective.

Our work with affected people is based on four aims: creating a broad concept of affected persons; establishing forms of compensation; safeguarding rights; indemnifying past violations.

In my view, it is necessary to approach the discussion of a concept of those affected by businesses from the bottom up, listening to the oppressed people. Consequently, we look to the experiences of the People's Courts, which, in 2010, convicted Santander (Spanish), Banif (Portuguese) and GDF-SUEZ (Franco-Belgian) for human rights abuses in the construction of the hydroelectric dams of Jirau and Santo Antônio, on the Rio Madeira in Rondônia (Brazil). Nevertheless, the absence of an international framework allows those companies to act with impunity. We consider that the obligation to remedy is essential for these changes; we are not talking about corporate responsibility, but direct compensation for the victims, the affected people. Without justice and enforcement, there are no human rights.

Our work with affected people is based on four aims: creating a broad concept of affected persons; establishing forms of compensation; safeguarding rights; indemnifying past violations.

There is a wonderful human rights discourse, yet nothing changes. Changes to the human rights paradigm are needed for our farmers, people who work with the land. We need an end to the architecture of impunity of transnationals. In 1972, Allende was already condemning the danger that the power of these companies posed; a year later, there was a coup d'état in Chile. More than thirty years on and we are still going. It is urgent to speak about those who are not present, to speak about those who live out of democracy, it is urgent because life is urgent. We know how things should be but we continue to wait and see, while the most at risk and vulnerable are excluded from the discussion.