Hope for a new settlement between companies, people and the environment in the EU

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

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A proposed due diligence law gives the EU the chance to reshape the relationship between corporations, people and the planet, writes Richard Gardiner.

Richard Gardiner is a senior campaigner working on corporate accountability with Global Witness.

Talk of a green, equitable recovery from the pandemic is all-consuming. While Joe Biden in the U.S. is also promising to ‘build back better’, 2021 presents a chance for the EU to do just that with a new law, one that could fundamentally reshape the often-toxic relationship between powerful, unaccountable corporations and people and our planet.

Our consumption culture often has impacts beyond our immediate horizons. In the early hours of 24 February, 2016, Colombian soldiers gathered outside the small village of Roche, on the Guajira Peninsula, and set up a road block.

As a crowd gathered, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron moved in, throwing projectiles and firing tear gas into the crowd. Thomas Fuentes, a Roche local, watched as his home was destroyed and his daughters detained.

Europeans are closer to this violence than we like to think. The village of Roche was cleared for an expansion of the notorious Cerrejón coal mine, one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. It’s owned by London-listed mining giants Anglo-American, BHP, and Glencore. Historically, Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board has been a big customer.

This is part of a trend – as Western nations outlawed human rights abuses and reduced emissions and pollution within their own borders, they exported those harms to the rest of the world, particularly the Global South, via snaking supply chains.

Yet the profits continue to make their way to Europe’s boardrooms, and our fossil-fuel dependent economies continue to incentivise abuses.

As the EU seeks to lead the world’s post-pandemic recovery and the fight against climate breakdown, we need to fundamentally change the relationship that companies have with people and our planet. It is no longer acceptable for companies to declare their own houses are in order if their supply chains are harming people and wrecking the environment.

That is the animating principle behind a new law being debated in Brussels this week. The European Commission is currently consulting on new corporate due diligence rules, following a campaign by NGOs.

The law would require companies to conduct due diligence down their supply chains, to the people and raw materials they profit from. They would no longer be able to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses – the forced clearances off land, intimidation, and violence – or to ignore the pollution and emissions which are accelerating climate breakdown.

It would also give victims of abuse the right to take European companies to court if they fail to live up to their obligations. While many of these abuses occur in countries where the perpetrator is not based and therefore may not be easily prosecuted under domestic laws, this firmly places the burden of proof on all companies to demonstrate they took adequate steps to prevent harm, not the other way round.

Finally, the law would mandate that companies engage with local communities to listen to concerns, giving them a chance to prevent environmental and human rights abuses before they happen.

In the short-term, the political outlook is positive. There is an emerging political consensus which supports these principles, with growing support across the three institutions. Of course, we can expect some entrenched corporations to resist. But fundamentally, the only way for businesses to remain profitable is to respect people and the finite resources of our planet.

On 27 January, MEPs in the Legal Affairs Committee will vote on a draft report which aims to shape the final legislation, and the rules under which European companies operate. MEPs should support this draft, and uphold the principles of sustainable and responsible business.

This law won’t in itself solve the climate crisis, or completely protect all communities from harm. But a strong law is essential to turning the tide of the climate crisis, to protecting the people suffering its effects, and to securing the EU’s role as a leader in the post-pandemic world.

Jakeline Romero, a Colombian land defender campaigning against Cerrejón expansion, told us ‘I can’t shut up. We are fighting for our lands, for our water, for our lives’’. That fight is now a global fight.

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