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Corporate Legal Accountability Quarterly Bulletin - Issue 19, January 2016


Welcome to our Corporate Legal Accountability Quarterly Bulletin -- highlighting a specific topic each quarter, as well as key developments in corporate legal accountability.  The Corporate Legal Accountability hub on our website provides objective, concise information about lawsuits against companies in which human rights abuses are alleged.
 
This bulletin and previous issues are available in English, French, Russian and Spanish.

Quarterly Highlight: Communities taking action


Sorn Champadok, a villager from Phosai District in Ubon Ratchatanee, Thailand, testified to a Thai court in December: "For the past years we have seen adverse changes to the [Mekong] river…Our income and sources for foods are affected. This has happened after the dams were built on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan, China. I am concerned that the Xayaburi Dam construction will make even more negative impacts on the Mekong River, resources and our lives.”  Communities such as Sorn Champadok’s that are negatively affected by large infrastructure projects are increasingly turning to their national courts to protect their human rights – often pushing the courts to consider novel, ground-breaking claims to advance legal accountability for business-related human rights abuse.  Bobbie Sta. Maria, our Southeast Asia Researcher and Representative, noted in a recent article that “communities from around the world are taking proactive legal actions against governments and corporations to prevent and remedy transboundary environmental harms like those resulting from climate change and mega projects, such as the Xayaburi dam in Laos.”  Millions of people in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam rely on the Mekong River for their food and livelihoods, and it is the world’s largest source of freshwater fish.  The dam will be the first to be built across the span of the mainstream of the Lower Mekong River, and there are ten more dams planned for this part of the river. 

A group of Thai villagers living along the Mekong River, including Sorn Champadok, filed a lawsuit in Thailand in 2012 against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and other Thai government agencies over the dam’s impact in Thailand.  This case was the first community-filed lawsuit in the region to challenge a large infrastructure project.  The plaintiffs argued that the dam will cause significant damage to the river's ecosystem and will displace millions who rely on it for their food security and livelihood.  Thai Government agencies entered into a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the construction company.  The villagers argued that this PPA (a key component of the dam’s financing) was illegal under Thai and international law because it was concluded without the necessary notification, consultation, and environmental and health impact assessments.  Allowing the Xayaburi dam to be built will set a precedent for the other dams now in planning, and this could have a devastating effect on food security and livelihoods of millions living in this river basin.  Many living along the Mekong River have already felt the negative impact of Chinese dams built on the Upper Mekong. 
 
On 25 December 2015, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court ruled in favour of the defendants.  The community members plan to appeal this ruling.  The lawyer for the villagers, Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, noted that she is confident that this is not the “end of the fight for the rights of the Mekong communities” and hopes that on appeal the court will examine further the transboundary impact the dam will have on these communities.
 
The Xayaburi case is a good example of communities who have worked with advocates to pursue innovative strategies to hold companies and governments legally accountable for business-related harm.  All too often, large infrastructure projects are planned and approved without adequate consultation with those communities who will be most affected, and subsequently those communities have nowhere to turn for remedy.  The Xayaburi case provides a valuable example for other vulnerable communities and their advocates to draw upon.  First, the case shows the importance of communities being legally empowered to protect their rights.  Danilo Chammas, a Brazilian lawyer for Justiça nos Trilhos, noted that “people aren’t aware of their rights, nor of possible solutions. A good part of our work actually goes beyond litigation, to encouraging people to engage with the judicial institutions that exist to defend them.”  Second, by taking legal action and pushing novel legal theories, communities should note that, while they may not always be successful, they do help develop a body of law paving the way for other communities to continue pushing for legal accountability.  These types of lawsuits will also have the capacity-building effect of educating judges, government officials and business people on their respective human rights obligations.
Legal developments

New case profiles

Lawsuit against BHP Billiton & Vale (re dam collapse in Brazil): In November 2015, the Brazilian Government filed a civil claim against BHP Billiton & Vale seeking 20.2 billion reais (USD 5.2 billion) in compensation for the environmental damage and communities affected by the collapse of a dam the companies owned.

Lawsuit against Kewei Tongchuang (re labour rights): In 2013, workers from the electronics company Kewei Tongchuang who were fired after going on strike brought a labour dispute before an arbitration committee in Fujian Province, China.  On 10 June 2014, the arbitration committee ruled that Kewei had illegally fired the workers and had to compensate them.  The company appealed the decision.  Legal experts noted that this decision is unusual because the arbitration committee tends to favour the employer.


Lawsuit against Odebrecht (re forced labour in Angola): On 13 June 2014, a Brazilian prosecutor filed a lawsuit against Odebrecht, a Brazilian multinational, accusing the company of human trafficking and of maintaining Brazilian workers in slave labour conditions in Angola.  In September 2015, the court convicted Odebrecht and ordered the company to pay 50 million reais (USD 13 million) in damages.

Workplace exposure to toxic chemicals lawsuit (re Taiwan): In April 2004, 529 Taiwanese workers from the “RCA Victims Aid Organisation” and their families filed a lawsuit against their former employer RCA (Radio Corporation of America), Technicolor, Technicolor USA, Thomson Consumer Electronics and General Electric (GE) in Taiwanese court over exposure to toxic solvents. On 17 April 2015, the court ruled in favour of the employees and ordered RCA, Technicolor, and Thomson to pay TWD 564 million to 445 of the victims. 

Xayaburi dam lawsuit (re Laos & Thailand): In August 2012, a group of villagers filed a lawsuit in Thailand's Administrative Court against government agencies, including the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.  They allege that the government agreed to buy electricity from the Xayaburi Dam without undertaking the consultations and impact assessments required by law.  In February 2013, the court denied jurisdiction, and the plaintiffs appealed.  The Thai Administrative court dismissed the case on 25 December.  The plaintiffs plan to appeal this decision.


Recent updates in cases we have profiled

Lawsuit against Nestlé, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (re child labour in Côte d'Ivoire): In September, the companies petitioned the US Supreme Court to overturn the federal appeals court’s ruling that the victims can bring their case because of the universal prohibition against slavery, and asked the Supreme Court to decide if companies are subject to liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act.  In January 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the companies' appeal.

Lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum (re complicity in Colombian village bombing): On 14 December, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the victims' appeal to reinstate the lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum.  In 2014, the appeals court had dismissed the case, finding that the case had insufficient ties to the United States to be heard in US court.

Lawsuit against Shell (re oil pollution in Oruma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo villages, Nigeria): In December 2015, a Dutch appeals court reversed its dismissal and permitted the balance of the claims to go forward.  The appeals court also ruled that Shell must grant the claimants access to certain internal company documents essential to the case.


Lawsuit against Tahoe Resources (re protesters' injuries in Guatemala): Following hearings in April, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled in November that it did not have jurisdiction in the case, and justice could be sought in Guatemala.

Lawsuit against Thomson Safaris (re Maasai in Tanzania): In October, the High Court of Tanzania denied the community's requests to revoke the company’s title to the land, to prevent conversion of the land’s designated use of pastoralism to tourism, and to award damages to the community for their displacement.  The Maasai plaintiffs intend to appeal.

US Deepwater Horizon explosion & oil spill lawsuits: In November, a clean-up worker sued BP over alleged exposure to toxic and hazardous compounds following the clean-up operations of the oil spill.  In October, an Indian tribe brought a lawsuit against BP, Transocean and Halliburton over the loss of their lands and resources from these lands due to the spill.

Lawsuit against Villaggio Mall (re fatal fire in Qatar)
: In October, a court of appeal overturned the manslaughter conviction of the owners and operators of the mall and nursery, which led to Qatar's Attorney General ordering prosecutors to file an appeal in November.


New lawsuits added to website

The Corporate Legal Accountability project now includes sections on key cases, with links to relevant articles and materials, but for which we have not yet drafted full profiles.

Lawsuit against Anjin Investments, Marange Resources & Diamond Mining Corporation (re water pollution): In September 2012, Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and a group of Zimbabwean villagers living along the Save River filed a request for a court order to stop mining companies polluting the river.

Lawsuit against Green Park Intl. (re land grabbing from Bil’in villagers): In 2008, a Palestinian village sued the construction company Green Park International in Canada.  They alleged breaches of international law by the company for building homes on occupied lands in the West Bank.  In September 2009, the Supreme Court declined jurisdiction.

Lawsuit against Consórcio Norte Energia (re Belo Monte dam in Brazil): In September 2015, Brazil’s environmental protection agency denied an operating licence to Consórcio Norte Energia until it completes mitigation projects in areas impacted by the construction of the Belo Monte dam.

Lawsuit against Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (re Mae Moh power plant): In February 2015, over 100 people living near the Mae Moh power plant in the Lampang province of Thailand won a lawsuit against the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.  The court found that the plant had failed to control its emissions properly, which resulted in locals suffering health problems.

Lawsuit against Intl. Finance Corp. (re financing of coal-fired plant in India): In November 2015, Indian fishermen and farmers filed a lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in US federal court over environmental damage from a power plant that the IFC financed.

Lawsuit against KiK (re textile factory in Pakistan): In September 2012, 260 people died and 32 were injured in fire in a textile factory in Pakistan.  In March 2015, survivors and family of victims filed a compensation claim against KiK, the factory’s main customer, in German courts.

Lawsuit against Riwal (re separation wall between Israel & Palestine): In 2010, Al-Haq filed a complaint against Riwal in the Netherlands for its participation in constructing the separation wall that the International Court of Justice has ruled illegal.  In May 2013, the Dutch Public Prosecutor dismissed the case.

Lawsuit against Syngenta (re armed attack on rural workers in Brazil
): In November 2015, a court found Syngenta responsible for an armed attack targetting activists who were denouncing experiments on genetically modified corn in a protective boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park, Brazil.

Lawsuit against Vedanta Resources (re water contamination in Zambia): In September 2015, a group of Zambian villagers filed a lawsuit against Vedanta Resources in UK court over water pollution caused by its subsidiary's copper mining operations.

Lawsuit against Volkswagen (re military dictatorship in Brazil): In September 2015, a civil lawsuit was filed in Brazil against Volkswagen alleging that the company collaborated with the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and that former employees were blacklisted and tortured. 

 

Other legal developments

In October, a Chinese court ruled in favour of environmental NGOs over harm from mining activities.  It was the first case decided after China strengthened its environmental law earlier in 2015 to allow NGOs to directly sue polluters when it is in the public interest.
New translations

In Chinese

科维彤创诉讼案(劳工权益)
[Kewei Tongchuang lawsuit (re labour rights)]

工作场所有毒化学品侵害讼诉案(台湾)
[Workplace exposure to toxic chemicals lawsuit (re Taiwan)]

 

In Spanish

Demanda contra RWE (relativa al cambio climático)
[Lawsuit against RWE (re impact of climate change in Peru)]

Demanda contra Impulsa Generación Responsable (derecho al agua, México)

[Lawsuit against Impulsa Generación Responsable (re water rights in Mexico)]
New blog posts
"Post Paris climate talks, how to take charge through climate litigation", Sif Thorgeirsson & Ciara Dowd, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 15 Dec 2015

"'It's a noble struggle': the human rights lawyers taking on big corporations", Elodie Aba, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, on Guardian (UK), 22 Sep 2015


If you are interested in contributing to a guest post on corporate legal accountability, please contact us. 
Other news
UK: Traidcraft calls on govt. to implement laws to hold businesses accountable for human rights abuses abroad

Key outcomes from consultation of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on early drafts of recommendations and guidance to States to enhance corporate accountability and access to remedy
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