October 25, 2017 / 5:51 PM / 2 years ago

New U.N. powers to quiz firms in bloody battle over land rights

DUBLIN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A United Nations official charged with defending human rights activists has gained new powers to question company directors in a bid to crack down on a worldwide surge in attacks on people who oppose their megaprojects.

Michel Forst said he had pushed beyond old U.N. rules - which restricted his access - in response to the violence that is increasingly directed at communities that stand in the way of big developments, such as mines and power plants.

“Many defenders say they are attacked by those companies... abductions, killings, their demonstrations blocked by security forces,” Forst, the U.N. rapporteur on human rights defenders, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the fringes of an activist meeting in the Irish capital.

“We are working together to make sure we have better protection for defenders and they have a say in development projects,” he said.

Previously, Forst could only contact states but under a pilot scheme that began in 2016, he has sent allegations of abuses by multinational companies against activists directly to the firms’ boards then questioned their directors.

Experts said Forst’s pilot can hold to account the international mining companies, who often use local subsidiaries and private security forces to shield themselves from criticism.

“The special rapporteur’s move to target mining companies directly...is a welcome support,” said Erin Kilbride of Front Line Defenders, a watchdog group.

Forst is conducting the trial with the agreement of governments and firms, including Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s biggest gold producer, which was contacted by Forst after conflict at a mine it operates in Peru.

He said firms had answered nearly all the letters so far sent - exceeding a previous response rate of about one third.

“The substance of these responses is a good indication of how they take seriously the evidence of mistreatment or ill-treatment by companies,” Forst said in an interview.


Forst was due to present a report at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, detailing a raft of initiatives to quell the surge in violence and revealing his intention to scale up contact with companies in coming months.

It is high time for some sort of action, activists say.

Watchdog groups say that last year was the deadliest on record for people who protect their land, resources and water.

Global Witness said nearly four people were murdered each week defending their homes from mining, dams and farm

projects. Front Line Defenders said more than 1,000 people in 25 countries were murdered, harassed, imprisoned or intimidated while fighting for their community’s rights.

This year is on track to be worse.

Global Witness said the rising violence was driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, with some mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies disregarding the environment and the rights of local people.

Worldwide, mines are the deadliest developments for communities who resist, said Global Witness.

A quarter of attacks on people opposing development projects were connected to companies headquartered in three countries: Canada, China and the United States, Forst said.

Forst said he was “pushing the limits of his authority” to hold these companies to account and create better dialogue with communities that want to protect natural resources.

While states bear the ultimate duty to ensure abuses are investigated, the U.N. can work with companies to bridge gaps in policing, such as mines in remote areas where authorities lack the will or ability to protect indigenous people, said Forst.

“The problem is that the companies do not understand what defenders are. They are accused to being anti-development, against the country, against progress, that they don’t want change,” said Forst. “We need to change that narrative.”

Contact with the companies in the pilot scheme is private but Forst cited Barrick Gold, where he sent letters with details of an alleged threat to a human rights defender in Peru.

These were addressed to both Barrick Gold and its in-country contractor, as well as the Canadian and Peruvian governments, he added.

The firm’s senior director of community relations said Barrick Gold’s ability to operate in foreign countries was dependent on good relationships with host communities.

“A mine can bring increased economic activity, create local jobs, develop much-needed infrastructure, and provide tax revenue that helps support local governments in delivering services,” Naomi Johnson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Jonathan Drimmer, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Barrick Gold, said extractive companies were aware of the risks of human rights violations and there was “no question” that engagement can be improved between companies and NGOs. 

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said details of communications with companies would be published at its conference in March.

Forst said the response from companies had been heartening but he will follow up to see if the changes he has asked the companies to deliver have been implemented on the ground.

Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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