How business presence can affect host communities topped the discourse at a recent media training on Business and Human Rights organised by Global Rights Initiatives, an Abuja-based non-governmental organisation. Funke Olaode reports
Recently, women in a community in the Niger Delta demonstrated, carrying placards and showing displeasure on how their means of livelihood have been affected; in a display which was televised.
They screamed and wept profusely as they urged the concerned authority in the state to come to their aid. Among the inscriptions on the placards were: ‘Who will salvage our means of livelihood?’ ‘Save us, our children are dying of contaminated water’ and, ‘Who will save our land, our crops have died?’
Daily, human rights are infringed upon consciously or unconsciously by multinational and mining companies. These unpleasant situations have pitted host communities against multinational companies, which have resulted in loss of lives and property.
The Ogoni nine debacle still remains fresh in the memories of many Nigerians from during the military era. Crisis erupted when the host community accused a multinational of taking their resources while they remain impoverished.
The late environmentalist and human rights activist, Ken Saro Wiwa led the protest both at home and abroad fighting for his people. He became a thorn in the flesh of the powers-that-be and he was eventually executed in 2005. Though the multinational settled the case but the company involved has not returned to the community till date.
Figures from the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) indicate that between 1997 and 2001, Nigeria recorded a total number of 2,097 oil spills incidents amounting to 1,947,600 barrels of crude oil, while thousands of barrels of oil have been spilt into the environment through pipeline and tanks in the country.
While this is going on, enforcement of environmental regulations is still poor as industries continue to discharge untreated waste water into the environment, and the degradation of the Niger Delta region following the explanatory activities of multi-national oil companies has continued unabated.
The region’s inhabitants have continued to complain bitterly about mass poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and loss of their traditional means of livelihood. With the onslaught on the land, the cries for the region became imperative to rid it of contaminated soil.
When it comes to environmental degradation, emphasis has always been on oil and mining companies, but there are intervening issues in day-to-day lives of the citizenry, which obviously infringe on human rights.
Such cases include child labour, labour being locked up in factories, allocation of common land to certain powerful individuals, business interference, banning workers from unionism, and poor access to potable water e.t.c.
Often, how everyday business impact human lives, governance and future are often ignored. Analysts are wondering: who are those benefiting and who are the vulnerable?
Against this backdrop, a one-day workshop was organised recently for select journalists in Abuja by the Global Rights Initiatives, an advocate for sustainable justice.
Global Rights is a human rights organisation founded in 1978, on the ideas of a just society for all built on universal principles of human rights and guaranteed by access to justice. Its model works and builds impact from broad base of society upwards, teaching and training coalitions, organisations and individual with a participatory approach that fosters long-term transparency and sustainable change.
Learning on how business and human rights have both positive and negative effects, the training enhanced the capacity of Nigerian journalists to cover issues surrounding business and human rights in Nigeria.
There was particular focus on the extractives sector, the intricacies of business and human rights, particularly the human angle and policy stories on the impact of mining activities and its socio-economic costs and how an enabling environment, which promotes compliance with relevant international guidelines on business and human rights, especially the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the Nigeria’s solid minerals sector, through media awareness, and its public enlightenment can be achieved.
Taking journalists through the extensive training with theme: ‘The Development Nexus: Business, Human Rights, Corporate Social Responsibility and Accountability’, the guest lecturer, Tunde Ajala defined human rights.
According to him, human rights are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender, race, their religious, cultural or ethnic background. Nevertheless, there is inalienability of human rights subject to a number of recognised derogations such as curfew, personal liberty in case of committing crime, trespass and so on.
Ajala also defined business as “any undertaking or form of activity embarked on for the purpose of making profit”. This, he noted is broad enough to involve sole proprietors, artisans, partnerships, companies, local companies, international companies, government owned or government-controlled entities, multinational enterprises, SMEs etc.
“But to what extent do we understand the nexus between business and human rights?” He threw the question as some critics believed businesses had no relationship with human rights; rather it was the concern of government and individuals.
However, irrefutable evidence globally established an undeniable link and showed that business(es) have an ambivalent impact on human rights as it can be a force for good, while promoting enjoyment of a multiplicity of human rights in terms of creation of employment, wealth creation, economic growth and development, provision of services, transfer of technology, revenue generation, foreign exchange earnings, contribution to GDP, CSR initiatives e.g. (provision of scholarships and amenities like water, roads, schools, hospitals).
While this is a welcome development, Ajala said it can also have negatively impact which cuts across several themes such as development and poverty, discrimination, conflict, labour, child labour, gender discrimination, corruption, rape and sexual issues, and environmental pollution etc.
For instance, 7,000 people died when toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India in 1984, and a further 15,000 people died in the following years, while around 100,000 people continue to suffer from chronic and debilitating illnesses caused by the gas leak.
Nike was accused of exploiting workers in sweatshops, failing to provide safe work environments and contracting with cotton factories that use slave labour.
And in Nigeria, oil companies in the Niger Delta region (e.g. the Ogoni 9 execution, oil spills, human rights violations by security personnel deployed to secure extractive companies operations), lead poisoning saga in Zamfara which claimed over 700 children, illegal mining by Chinese and Indian companies in Northern Nigeria, pollution of water sources, destruction of the environment, shootings at a cement plant in Gboko in March, 2014, where soldiers deployed to the plant killed six men and one woman.
How can the aforementioned be curtailed? Ajala said three things are key: identification of security risks, potential for violence and human rights records.
Shedding more light, he stressed that identification of security risks by consulting regularly with government and local communities about the impact of their security arrangements on those communities will help a great deal in managing conflicts.
Also, potential for violence means risk assessments should study patterns of violence in areas of company operations for educational, prognostic, and preventive purposes.
Human rights records should scrutinise the obtainable human rights records of public security forces, paramilitaries, local and national law enforcement, as well as the reputation of private security.
However, he emphasised that security arrangements, regular consultations on communication of policies to security providers; encouragement of transparency and accessibility of security arrangements will reduce escalation of violence or conflict.
He concluded that if all the above steps are guided and implemented by stakeholders, they can help promote peace, reduce conflict with the host communities, foster stable and conducive operating environment for their activities and also help reduce pipeline vandalisation and oil theft.
And above all, a stable working environment would not only benefit the community but bring stability to the nation and improve revenue generation.
In her presentation on the role of the media in promoting and protecting human rights by drawing the attention of the authority concerned, Project Manager, Nigeria, IWPR, Ann Iyonu charged Nigerian journalists to rise up in discharging their duties.
She cited the media mandate under Section 22 which states that journalists should uphold objectives by reporting government activities as the fourth estate of the realm.
Iyonu said Article 12 of the Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists commits media professionals to demonstrate “social responsibility” and requires that: “A journalist should promote universal principles of human rights, democracy, justice, equity, peace and international understanding.”
On media as tool for policy influence and change, she stressed that “the media is a generator and source of information: under such rubrics reporters gather, process and present most of the information we receive about everything including human rights.”
To her, in addition to processing information, the media are political and moral agents, in deciding to highlight a particular story, taking clear editorial positions and calling for something to be done. The media plays a significant role in order to steer governments on the right path in their efforts to protect, enforce and promote human rights.
Rounding up the workshop, she highlighted the role of media in business and human rights as follows; that the key responsibility of journalists is to do real service to individuals and help improve their lives.
“Without freedom of information and active involvement of the media, which is the source of information for an ordinary man, these actions of the international businesses on communities are less understood or known by the society and it will continue.
“We need to take our job and country seriously. It shouldn’t be business as usual. Look beyond yourself for the next generation and let us discharge our social responsibility for a better tomorrow,” she concluded.