human rights & business (and a few other things)

Mining in Colombia and Latin America: will the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights improve accountability?

Yesterday I was fortunate to spend the day at a conference on the business and human rights challenges  posed by mining in Colombia and Latin America organised by ABColumbia and the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.

With the first panel bringing representatives of indigenous communities of Colombia and the Colombian Ambassador to the UK at the same table to discuss the positive and negative impacts of mining, this won’t come as a surprise: no consensus was reached. That said, the first panel managed to shed light on the interests at stake: on the one hand the government sees it as an absolute necessity for Colombia to attract foreign investment. On the other hand certain mining projects have had devastating consequences on local populations, indigenous or simply rural, and as a result the affected communities can become hostile to all mining projects. No matter what one thinks about such positions, it is clear that proposed solutions overlooking any of these two points of view are bound to fail. Moreover, Colombia is currently in the process of negotiating an end to its 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The context in Colombia is therefore not only the exploitation of resources by mining companies, sometimes to the detriment of local populations, but also widespread violence of paramilitary groups fueled by drug trafficking and prevalent corruption.

The second panel looked into the debated question of development and brought together a variety of people from industry and civil society. The third panel, which I chaired, was about the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles and what remains to be done, by both governments and businesses, to make them a reality. Speakers agreed that the Guiding Principles are really just a starting point for additional work in the area.

The last panel focused on “due diligence” and remedies, and also included a presentation on the bribery legislation in the UK, and its extraterritorial reach. One of the points that was made in the course of the discussions was that conducting human rights impact assessments, which is part of the due diligence requirements in the Guiding Principles, is not enough to avoid situations that can bring human rights violations and ensuing litigation. Andy Whitmore, from Indigenous Peoples Links, who is also a PhD candidate at Middlesex, spoke about the requirement of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples to projects that affect them as being a human right. He elaborated on the challenges to operationalising FPIC, both in general and in Colombia.

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