Cross Party Group explores the impact of big business on human rights

Cross Party Group explores the impact of big business on human rights

In today’s globalised world, big business has become more powerful than ever. While business can play a role in tackling poverty, more often than not – particularly in the case of transnational corporations – the drive to maximise profit comes at the expense of human rights and environmental protection.

In November, at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on International Development, MSPs and guests were given some stark examples of how private investment in countries in the global south can have disastrous outcomes for local people and the environment.

Visiting Zambian National, Fr. Leonard Chiti, outlined his experience of big business and its impact on human rights and the environment in Zambia. He explained that his Government’s goal of attracting much needed foreign direct investment has led to laws and policies that aim to make it easy for foreign businesses to set up and operate.  

However, through doing so, this has also resulted in there being a lack of proper regulation and safeguards that protect the country and its people from human rights abuse, poor labour standards, tax-dodging and environmental degradation.

Fr. Chiti cited examples of Trans National Corporations (TNCs) from across the world, including UK based businesses such as Vedanta, that have been accused of exploitation of workers and human rights abuses. In 2017, Vedanta’s subsidiary – Konkola Copper Mines – was sued by some 200 villagers in North west Zambia where it operates its mines; the villages are demanding compensation for damage to their properties for toxic discharge from its mining operations.

He went on to say that corruption allegations are frequently levelled against different foreign firms who are accused of bribing public officials in order to win lucrative contracts.

So what can be done about this?

Given the enormous impact big business has on us all and the planet, greater regulation and transparency from big business is a must. However, complex corporate structures mean that in practice it can be very difficult to hold companies to account.

To address this, legislation is required in countries in the Global North where many TNCs are headquartered. Here in Scotland, that would mean legislation agreed by the UK Parliament which would oblige companies to carry out human rights due diligence. This means companies take steps to identity, prevent and mitigate human rights abuses in their activities and supply chains across the world.

However, agreements at supranational level are also important because business operates across national borders. Such an agreement has been discussed and back in 2014, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, governments agreed to explore options around a binding international treaty on business and human rights. Such a treaty could help to redress the imbalance that has emerged between companies’ interests and the rights of communities and provide for access to justice for those harmed by business activity.

Unfortunately, the majority of states have not taken a positive approach to the treaty discussions to date, including the EU and the UK. The UK government does not think a treaty is necessary and instead would rather concentrate on voluntary rules.  Many campaigners are now calling for governments – including the UK - to engage positively in the talks and support the need for a treaty.   

Raising awareness of the treaty and building support for the process is therefore really important. To this end, there are a number of things we can do, including asking our MSPs and MPs to show their support by signing the global pledge to support a binding treaty.

We can also encourage better business practice by educating ourselves and demanding that the businesses we buy from and trade with are transparent and accountable in what they do.

Ultimately, if we don’t ask more of our representatives and our businesses, the rights of deprived communities across the world will remain in second place behind those of big business.

We created a briefing ahead of this meeting in conjunction with Global Justice Now and SCIAF that outlines all the themes raised and includes a range of asks for your local politician.

Check it out here, and share it with your MSP and MP.