As the intergovernmental working group (IGWG) on transnational corporations (TNCs) and human rights is meeting for the first time in Geneva this week, WILPF co-organised two side events at the United Nations to highlight the importance of this issue and give a voice to activists from affected communities around the world.

Testimonials of human rights abuses
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Pamela Palmater speaking about the rights of indigenous people in Canada at the side event on 6 July.

The first side event, which took place on Monday 6 July, focused on the impact of TNCs and other businesses on grassroots communities. “We are very happy to present a panel where women are in the majority. This is very rare at the UN,” moderator Ana Maria Suarez Franco from FIAN International said as the event started. The second side event, taking place the following day, also featured a gender-balanced panel that discussed the need for international regulation from the perspective of social movements.

The panels consisted of activists from a number of different countries who were able to give their testimonials of TNCs’ violations of human rights, most notably the right to life, the right to health and the right to safe food and water. Forced displacements, extrajudicial killings of activists and union leaders, and destruction of entire eco-systems were just a few examples of what they had witnessed in the TNCs’ ravaging hunt for profit.

Women from indigenous communities in Panama, India and Canada could also testify that the already marginalised communities often are the most affected. “We are in the second round of colonisation of indigenous people,” Pamela Palmater from Canada stated. The parallels with colonisation were further highlighted as many panellists emphasised the fact that most TNCs are based in the Global North, whereas the abuses are predominantly committed in the Global South.

Rise of sexual violence and corruption
Manuela Mesa, Vice President o WILPF Spain, addressed the issue of TNCs and sexual violence at the side event on 7 July.

Manuela Mesa, Vice President of WILPF Spain, addressed the issue of TNCs and sexual violence at the side event on 7 July.

During the discussions, several panellists also raised the issue of sexual violence. “Where we see corporate exploitation, we see a rise of sexual violence,” Jules Mbokani Mathe from the DRC said, pointing to a problem that is widespread in his country but by no means limited to it. Manuela Mesa, Vice President of WILPF Spain, also described how a Spanish company operating in Guatemala had used sexual violence and intimidation to stop women from protesting the company’s misconduct.

As the panellists showed by many examples, the State can far too rarely be counted on when these abuses take place. Across the world, TNCs are building their relations with governments and getting an ever-increasing influence over their decision-making. TNCs have also been reported to establish relations with public and private security and intelligence, as well as with paramilitary groups. Coupled with the fact that we live in a world where companies can make a profit from conflicts, the possibility of corruption is limitless.

Ending impunity

“Impunity is not just about the absence of punishment; it is when corporations can continue doing this legitimately,” said Dora Lucy Arias from the Colombian Colectivo de Abogados. All panellists stressed the need for the IGWG that is meeting in Geneva this week to work to establish a legally binding treaty with direct obligations for both TNCs and States, and that such an instrument must address the prevention, regulation and sanctioning of TNCs’ human rights abuses. As WILPF member Binalakshmi Nepram from the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace said to round off the discussion: “There has to be a way of limiting the way greed operates in this world.”

WILPF is following the IGWG’s negotiations closely. Stay tuned for our updates by following us on Facebook and Twitter and by subscribing to the Human Rights programme’s newsletter. Sign our petitions to call on governments to take action, and read our blog on the Week of Mobilisation to learn more about the background of this week’s events. #StopCorporateAbuse!