More than half of worldwide human rights abuses from corporations are physical in nature — such as forced labor, trafficking and abduction — and environmental, concluded a white paper prepared in part by two University of Denver classes in business and international studies.
Students analyzed a database of 1,007 alleged human rights abuses by corporate entities in countries with populations of more than one million people between 2000 and 2014. The paper noted that the U.K.-based organization maintaining the database undertook verification measures for each allegation, and the total number of cases is likely underreported. The most common sectors that gave rise to reported abuse were the extraction, agriculture and textile industries, which together accounted for two-thirds of all reports.
“Private actors are kind of forgotten about when we talk about human rights,” Brittny Parsells-Johnson, a student in DU’s human rights program, told the university’s newsroom. “It’s been good for me to broaden my view of how people can fall victim to human rights abuses, the kind of things communities can do and protest against to fight for their rights and getting a better idea of how corporations fit into that.”
The allegations of human rights violations were striking: a Brazilian company reportedly confined over 1,000 workers to slave labor on a sugar plantation without access to water or sanitation. A Canadian company may have been involved in murdering an indigenous Mexican leader who opposed mining.
In only one-third of the documented cases did victims have access to a remedy through the judicial system. An additional quarter had access to state-based grievance procedures, mediation, or other source of non-judicial remedy. In 40% of cases, victims had no access to a remedy at all.
Even so, access do a remedy did not necessarily equate to justice for the victims.
A 2006 coal mine explosion in Coahuila, Mexico trapped and killed 65 miners and left 13 injured. The company's owner agreed to a payout for the victims’ families until pensions kicked in, but the company cut payments short. A trial of company executives resulted in an order for restitution, but subsequent attempts at settlement or litigation fell through. It was only in March 2018 that the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights found that Mexico had not compiled with its human rights obligations, and last year the Mexican president promised to recover the miners’ bodies — 13 years after their deaths.
The report noted that different entities could be responsible for bringing justice to the victims. “Company-controlled remedy provision was usually associated with financial compensation paid to victims and families, which were often ordered by the state,” the report reads. Researchers observed that companies seemed to respond to cases in an ad hoc manner, which could be the result of non-transparent policies for dealing with victims, rather than the lack of a policy.
Companies, said DU associate professor Tricia D. Olsen, are "to varying degrees, making concerted efforts to try to resolve their wrongdoing.” The white paper was sent to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.