Business and human rights in Latin America: urgent demands in 2023

UN Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in Chile, discusses the frequent violations in the region and civil society proposes solutions

 (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP) (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

The capital of Chile, Santiago, hosted earlier this month the VIII Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, an event organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

One of the goals of the event was to bolster the development of regulatory frameworks that demand accountability from companies with respect to human rights and the right to a healthy environment. This topic is crucial given the worsening climate crisis and is especially relevant in Latin America, where there is a clear loss of socio-biodiversity and an escalation of attacks on indigenous peoples and traditional communities. 

The meeting discussed the role of the State in developing public policies and protecting human rights defenders, the different perspectives on access to remedy, as well as the urgency of implementing human rights due diligence in strategic sectors (agribusiness, extractive industries and finance). These topics are closely linked to the current discussion on climate justice. Another issue discussed at the event was the rights of working people and mechanisms to reduce labor exploitation, which is a very real problem in Brazil and other countries in the region. 

“Civil society participated in the event, illustrating that it is not possible to separate corporate sustainability from respect for human rights and the environment. There is a pressing need to build a business and human rights platform in the region to address our complexities and, primarily, to hold companies, financial institutions and governments accountable for violating rights,” said Fernanda Drumond, an advisor for the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. According to her, guaranteeing the dignity of workers and the responsible exploration of natural resources should be priorities for corporations. 

UN principles on business and human rights 

Just over a decade ago, the United Nations published what is now the main reference on the potential impact on human rights caused by companies. It was not the first time that the UN addressed the issue, but it was the first robust and comprehensive document to be published, after a process lasting several years that involved public consultations with various different actors, including the private sector.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish a detailed set of responsibilities applicable to all companies, and they also remind States of their duty to protect people. Its publication allowed this agenda to gain more clout, helping to lay to rest once and for all the idea that philanthropy can pass for social responsibility and calling on companies to look at the negative impacts of their operations and activities throughout their value chain.

However, their voluntary implementation is still limited, especially in the Global South, where the exploration of natural resources is intense, low-cost labor is widely available and countries are more dependent on the production of commodities – which are part of complex and fragile global supply chains. 

Rights violations in Latin America

The regional context is marked by widespread impunity for companies that violate human rights and also by violence against activists who report the cases.

Sectors such as agribusiness and civil construction are most sensitive to the UN principles, and they are often the main culprits of abuse, which also highlights the serious failure by States in the region to fulfill their duty to protect human rights. There is also clear resistance by other countries to fulfill their extraterritorial obligations when their companies commit abuses abroad. In Latin America, many multinational companies do not adopt the same standards for action and monitoring that they follow in their countries of origin (usually North America and Europe).

In Brazil, large-scale environmental and social crimes such as those in the Doce River and Brumadinho, involving the bursting of tailings dams belonging to the mining companies Samarco, BHP and Vale, in addition to cases of modern-day slavery in various different business sectors across the country, illustrate the seriousness of the situation.

There is currently a bill (Bill 572/22) pending in the Lower House of Congress that has served as a reference in the debate on corporate accountability. The bill extends responsibility for human rights violations to the entire production chain, from the parent company to its subcontractors, regulating business activities in the country and including surveillance, prevention and reparation mechanisms.

Taking into account the current discussions on environmental racism, which considers gender, race and class when measuring the impacts of the climate crisis, the Regional Forum in Chile also addressed the serious human rights violations against women in Latin American countries, with a view to bringing greater attention to these issues in business practices.

Joint declaration 

The Regional Forum ended with the signing of a joint declaration on the impacts of business activities in the region by 30 civil society organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean – including Conectas. The declaration addressed issues such as the negative consequences of agribusiness, the persecution of human rights defenders and the lack of complaint and reparation mechanisms for financial sector institutions. According to the signatory organizations, the climate crisis has created a false idea of corporate energy transition, which does not respect the rights of communities and the environment. The organizations also highlighted the problem of forced labor, especially in illegal economic activities, and presented a series of demands and recommendations, including accountability for financial institutions that extend credit to business ventures that violate human rights, more dialogue between the United Nations, civil society and affected communities, and the implementation of government inspection and control of corporations.

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