The governments of Argentina and Bolivia joined civil society organisations, in the Austrian capital, to accuse European companies of disregarding laws on the environment, civil rights and labour in their operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The thirty or so corporations put in the dock by activists work in a wide range of fields, including drinking water management, energy, oil, mining, pulp and paper production, the fishing industry, finance and telecommunications.
Non-governmental organisations severely condemned the European corporations "for their acts of legal and moral injustice", according to a communiqué released Friday, the last day the Permanent People's Tribunal (PPT) was in session. The PPT was convened in Vienna this week as an alternative to the Fourth EU-LAC summit.
"The tribunal hearings have convinced us that many business consortiums based in Europe and operating in Latin America are committing legal and moral injustice on a daily basis", Elmar Altvater, a professor of political economy at the Free University of Berlin, who presided over the PPT, told IPS. Altvater stated that "evidence of massive violations of the human, social, cultural and labour rights of Latin American workers has been presented to the PPT".
The evidence convinced the 10 members of the PPT jury that European corporations are abusively exploiting natural resources, destroying the environment, and violating civil rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the verdict announced Friday, the jury also declared that "large European corporations are not the only parties guilty of these violations". "They share responsibility with the governments of the countries where these corporations are based, and with the European Union (EU), which allow them to violate in Latin America the standards applied in Europe", the document reads.
The jury members included Colombian human rights activist Alirio Uribe, French political scientist Susan George, Austrian lawyer René Kuppe, and Lilian Manzella, an environmentalist from the United States.
George told IPS that "European governments must face up to their responsibility for the abuses committed by corporations based in their countries, which contribute to widening the inequalities between the industrialised and developing worlds". "Food sovereignty is currently beyond the reach of countries of the South, pollution is commonplace throughout the developing world, indigenous peoples are decimated and their cultures are destroyed, all because of actions by corporations", she added.
Before the alternative summit, achieving a public condemnation - albeit non-binding - of the corporations seemed to be merely an activist's dream. However, this perception changed when presidents Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Evo Morales of Bolivia criticised transnational companies at the summit meeting of the heads of state of the 25 EU member countries and 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
In his opening speech at one of the working sessions of the Vienna Summit, Kirchner complained that "the large pulp mills being installed in our region have avoided compliance with the standards that you would have imposed on them in Europe". The Argentine president demanded that the EU apply a "global solutionàfor the protection of the environment, which must be cared for in industrialised countries as well as in those that have not yet achieved development, in rich countries and in poor countries, in the North and in the South, in countries of the centre and those of the periphery". "What we can by no means accept is that countries more developed than ours should try to transfer to us the most heavily polluting part of their industrial processes", he said, before calling on European governments to "abandon double standards". Kirchner was specifically referring to the ongoing dispute between his country and Uruguay over the construction on the Uruguayan side of a border river of two pulp plants by the ENCE company of Spain and Finland's Metsa-Botnia. The two factories will produce a total of 1.5 million tons of paper pulp a year.
The conflict even received international media coverage in Vienna Friday, when a carnival queen paraded before the heads of state in a diminutive bikini, decked with feathers, carrying a placard condemning the pulp mills, and flanked by the flags of both countries.
The environmental watchdog Greenpeace obtained press accreditation for Evangelina Carrozo, winner of the latest carnival beauty contest in Gualeguaychú, a town in the east of Argentina located 25 kilometres from the site where the pulp mills are being built. The town's residents have led the protests spurred by fears of the plants' possible environmental impact. Carrozo was immediately detained by security personnel, and escorted out of the room where the heads of state - including Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez - were meeting. Carrozo defended her act of protest, saying that "it was the right opportunity to take our cause to the global level". "In Argentina we don't want pollution" from the pulp mills, she added.
While Kirchner attacked European companies and governments over environmental issues, the Bolivian president focused his criticisms on foreign-owned oil and gas companies operating in his country. Morales defended the May 1 nationalisation of his country's energy reserves, and went on to rebuke corporations for allegedly violating Bolivia's laws and regulations. Some companies "do not pay taxes, and even participate in contraband", Morales said. "How can these companies and their governments talk to us about legal guarantees?"
As in the case of the pulp mill protests in Argentina, the companies singled out for criticism by Morales appear on the list of consortiums condemned by the PPT for their acts of "legal and moral injustice".
Copyright 2006 Inter Press Service News Agency