Half a million people can’t be ignored – it is time for the EU to listen

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Momentum is growing among policymakers, civil society and the public in the call to hold businesses accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment through binding EU laws. Now eyes are on the European Commission to follow through with tangible and effective legislation, writes Jill McArdle. Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie

Momentum is growing among policymakers, civil society and the public in the call to hold businesses accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment through binding EU laws. Now eyes are on the European Commission to follow through with tangible and effective legislation, writes Jill McArdle.

Jill McArdle is a Friends of the Earth Europe corporate accountability campaigner

Over half a million people have called on the EU for stronger laws to hold businesses accountable for their negative impact on human rights and the environment. The European Parliament will this week vote on a resolution for binding laws for corporate accountability.

Now, the European Commission must build on the mass momentum for change and turn it into tangible laws.

Last month, two campaigns led by NGOs, trade unions and civil society collected over 500,000 submissions to the EU’s recent public consultation on corporate accountability.

Half a million signatures is not a number to shrug off: it is the latest step in a growing march to use binding laws to stop corporations wreaking havoc on the planet and people.

And after decades of transnational companies spilling oil, wrecking local lands, forcibly displacing whole villages and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in their global supply chains, it’s about time.

Cases like the recent victory in the Netherlands herald the end of companies wrecking the environment and human rights abroad with impunity. Three Nigerian farmers won the right to compensation from one of the world’s most powerful transnational corporations, Shell, after a 13-year legal struggle to get justice for oil spills.

Since Shell arrived in the Niger Delta in the 1950s and began pumping up – and spilling – oil, hundreds of thousands of local Nigerian people have suffered from serious health problems – breathing toxic fumes, drinking poisoned water, farming contaminated soil, unable to earn a living. Life expectancy is ten years shorter than the rest of Nigeria.

The case, brought by Chief Barizaa Dooh, three other farmers from nearby villages and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, was the first time survivors of Shell’s pollution have won justice and the possibility of compensation in the company’s home country, the Netherlands.

Whereas previously Shell and other transnationals have hidden from responsibility behind a complicated system of sub-entities and service companies, this time the court verdict cut through that attempt.

It declared that Royal Dutch Shell, the mother company, has a duty to monitor the behaviour of its subsidiary, and they didn’t do all they could to respond to damage from the leaks.

The whole case took thirteen years while lawyers struggled to even have the case heard in the EU. Dooh did not live to see the verdict.

No victim should have to wait thirteen years for justice.

This court case was a breakthrough. But it also clearly showed the huge obstacles that exist for victims. This is why we need better laws to hold European companies like Shell liable for what happens in their name overseas and to give victims quicker and more effective routes to justice.

We need to impose a duty on companies to actively prevent harm. An EU law must also hold companies liable for their subsidiaries and companies they can control throughout their supply chains.

Victims of environmental and human rights violations by European companies need to be given access to courts in Europe. And the burden of proof needs to be shifted more fairly.

So no more hiding behind a network of subsidiaries. No more thirteen-year debates about whether Shell is responsible for Shell’s own oil pollution just because it happens in another country. Profits of Shell in Nigeria go to the head office in the Netherlands, so should the accountability for what goes wrong. Justice must be guaranteed.

Now we need strong EU laws to make this happen. Half a million signatures and a groundbreaking court case show the tide is turning: the European Commission must follow this trajectory by proposing binding legislation and showing their commitment to a just future.

Business as usual is over – it’s time for fairer laws for better futures.

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