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LATIN AMERICA: European Corporations on Trial

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, May 14 2008 (IPS) - Twenty European corporations are being tried for human rights violations before an ethical tribunal at the Peoples’ Summit, organised for the third time by the Bi-Regional Network “Enlazando Alternativas” (Linking Alternatives) in Lima. The organisers announced that they hope to take some of these cases to ordinary courts of justice in Peru.

“The existence of this tribunal is a reaffirmation of human rights, and what we are trying to do here is emphasise that economic growth in many countries is often tied to rights violations,” Italian Dr. Gianni Tognoni, the secretary-general of the People’s Tribunal, told IPS.

The verdicts of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, which was created in Italy in 1979, are not legally binding but carry moral weight. The tribunal’s current sessions commenced on Tuesday afternoon, in parallel with preliminary meetings for the Fifth Latin America and the Caribbean-European Union (EU-LAC) Summit, to be held May 16 and 17 in the Peruvian capital.

The members of the tribunal announced that they would put 20 transnational mining, oil, energy and banking corporations operating in Latin America on trial for trampling on the rights of local people, in the absence of proper government oversight.

This is the second time that European companies are being judged by the tribunal, which is holding its 36th session after nearly 30 years of existence, according to Tognoni.

The companies in the dock are based in 10 different European countries, and operate in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile and Colombia.

Only one of the corporations is based in Latin America: the Brazilian Vale do Rio Doce mining company.

The case of Ireland, as a country affected by the Anglo-Dutch Shell oil company, will also be studied.

The unique aspect of these trials is that it is hoped that lawsuits against companies that have violated rights in Peru will be filed with the Peruvian justice system, said indigenous leader Miguel Palacín, the coordinator of the organising committee of the People’s Summit.

“If the members of the tribunal find that the rights of local communities have been violated, we will take the cases to ordinary courts – at least in Peru,” Palacín told IPS.

Peru has presented three cases to the tribunal, involving the mining company Monterrico Metals, which operates in Río Blanco in northern Peru; agribusiness corporation Camposol, a subsidiary of the Norwegian Dyer Coriat Holding company, accused of sacking workers who were trying to create a trade union; and the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer.

The opening session of the People’s Tribunal was devoted to hearing evidence from victims and complainants.

Cases were heard Tuesday against Monterrico Metals, Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF for its activities in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, and Shell in relation to oil extraction in Brazil and Argentina.

The last case of the day was that of the Finnish company Botnia, which has a pulp mill and forestry activities in Uruguay, and was accused of implementing a production model based on extensive monoculture, that is having a serious social, cultural and environmental impact on the country, according to the plaintiffs.

The first person to testify on behalf of those affected by the Río Blanco copper mining project in northern Peru was the president of the Campesino (small farmer) Communities of Ayabaca, Magdiel Carrión.

“We have come to denounce the invasion of our communal lands by the Monterrico Metals company, and the constant abuse of our basic rights to live in a healthy environment, free of repression,” Carrión told IPS.

Carrión is one of the indigenous and campesino leaders who have been accused of “terrorism” for their opposition to mining activities. The legal charges were brought against 35 local leaders and environmental activists, based merely on photocopies of news articles, by an association that supports Monterrico and its major shareholder, China’s Zijin consortium.

Local villagers and campesinos in the highland region where the company is operating are afraid that the mining operations will damage water sources and biodiversity in the area. They also complain that the company lacks authorisation from community assemblies, which must approve its plans with a two-thirds majority, according to the Law on Promotion of Private Investment.

Two protesters have been killed and several injured in protest demonstrations, and over 200 campesinos who participated in the protests face criminal prosecution, according to the Ecumenical Foundation for Development and Peace (FEDEPAZ).

During the exploration phase, the company dumped acid effluents containing heavy metals and other pollutants in pits without the required lining, endangering water sources, according to the government’s Energy and Mining Investment Supervisory Body (OSINERGMIN).

Sebastián Valdomir, of the non-governmental Social Ecology Network-Friends of the Earth (REDES-Amigos de la Tierra) in Uruguay, spoke on behalf of organisations backing those affected by Botnia’s activities, who number more than 2,000 people, he said.

“Transnational paper pulp companies like Botnia, Stora Enso and Spain’s ENCE are responsible for violations of environmental and water rights, because of their irrational consumption of natural resources that rightfully belong to local people engaged in family farming,” Valdomir told IPS.

Tognoni highlighted the probity of the 80 expert members of the tribunal, who include lawyers, sociologists, economists and other professionals who identify with the defence of human rights. At the Lima sessions, 12 members are sitting on the panel.

The tribunal will announce its verdicts on Friday, at the close of the People’s Summit.

Another six major themes will be discussed at the alternative summit: new constitutionalism and the privatisation of justice; the privatisation of public services; infrastructure; the fall in stable employment, and exploitative working conditions; the financial system and economic crimes; and the criminalisation of social protest, and the use of force.

Other companies on trial are the BBVA, HSBC and Santander banks, Spanish energy company Unión Fenosa, and telecommunication companies Telecom Italia and Telefónica of Spain.

The organisers of the People’s Summit stressed the moral importance of the tribunal’s verdicts. “The decisions of this court will be a call to states to respect the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable populations,” Palacín told IPS.

The alternative forum, which is critical of “neoliberal” free market economics, is being attended by 30 Peruvian institutions and another 50 from abroad, including social movements, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and political parties.

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