Violations of peoples’ rights by European TNCs

The cases in Latin America presented to the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal
10 July 2010

European transnational corporations are praised as "engines" of Europe's growth economy, however extensive research on the activities of 25 flagship companies have revealed evidence of labour abuses, deforestation, corruption, and attacks on human rights defenders.

European Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are regarded as the “engines” of Europe’s growth economy and as drivers of development in the Global South. However, in Latin America and the Caribbean, European TNCs have positioned themselves in strategic areas of the Latin American economy, resulting in increased impoverishment, the pillaging of natural resources, dismantling of public services, conflict, criminalisation of social protest and devastation of the environment.

Over the past few years, European TNCs in Latin America and the Caribbean have been challenged by social movements and civil society organisations from both Latin America and Europe (united in the bi-regional network Enlazando Alternativas) for their systematic abuses of human rights. Extensive documentation of these violations were presented to the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT)[i] in three separate sessions in Vienna (May 2006), Lima (May 2008) and Madrid (May 2010).

In Vienna and Lima, the Sessions on “Neoliberal Policies and European Transnationals in Latin America and the Caribbean” exposed and assessed the mechanisms responsible for violations of human rights, labour rights and environmental standards committed by more than 25 multinational companies. The session on "The European Union and Transnational Corporations in Latin America: policies, instruments and actors complicit in the violations of people’s rights", held in Madrid, focused on European institutions, policies and actors who are complicit in creating an architecture of impunity for the operations of TNCs.

In total, the three sessions of the Tribunal considered 48 cases of TNCs from 12 sectors operating in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Each specific case presented to the Tribunal clearly demonstrated that the reported violations are not isolated incidents, but are repeated systematically. The cases presented at the Tribunal: exposed the major impacts of TNC behaviour, which communities and individuals suffered; gave greater visibility to the instruments that facilitate and cause these outcomes; and finally, identified the actors responsible for these outcomes and the motivations behind their actions. Furthermore, the Tribunals accused the European Union and European governments of being complicit in the crimes of transnational corporations by creating the conditions for violations to take place.

What follows is a brief summary of the evidence of violations of fundamental human rights by TNCs, highlighted in the verdicts of the last two sessions of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (Lima 2008 and Madrid 2010):

a) Attacks on labour rights: Evidence was presented of exploitation of labour, the criminalization of social protest, (characterised by violent repression that has reached the extreme of causing numerous violations of the individual's right to life and liberty), as well as criminal charges ranging from crimes of association to terrorism. The persecution of trade unions via unjust mass dismissals was made particularly evident in the case of the agro-foods company CAMPOSOL when, December 2007, 385 workers, 80 per cent of whom were unionised, were dismissed. Evidence was also presented against: Telefónica of Chile for violation of trade union freedoms, and violation of the fundamental right to work and to decent working conditions; Pescanova for violation of labour rights in Nicaragua, such as subjecting its workers to days of over 12 hours, deducting taxes from their overtime pay and limiting or prohibiting the workers’ right to unions; Hanes Brands for violation of the rights of women workers in Honduras; Louis Dreyfus for cases of slave labour in Brazil; and Proactiva Medioambiente and Union Fenosa for massive layoffs of workers in Ecuador and Central America.

b) Attacks on physical integrity: Evidence of the use of military, police, paramilitary and private security companies was presented in cases such as Impregilo in the river Sogamoso (Colombia), Cerrejón in la Guajira Colombia, Monterrico in Peru, BP in Colombia and Thyssen Krupp in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Tribunal also heard cases of kidnappings (Holcim and Monterrico), murder of social and community leaders (Union Fenosa and Holcim in Guatemala and Colombia), and forced disappearance of persons. The criminalization of communities opposed to the exploitation of natural resources (mining, cement, energy) in the case of Holcim and Gold Corp. (Guatemala) was also heard. The cases of Union Fenosa, Pluspetrol in Peru and BP in Colombia gave evidence of instances where governments imposed a "state of siege", suspending rights and undertaking arbitrary arrests. In the specific case of Nestlé, the complaint related to strategies of intimidation and, through the use of infiltrators, control of social organizations in Europe.

c) Destruction of the environment and vital resources: Although they are not the only polluters, the mining and oil industries in particular continue to contaminate water supplies and cause soil degradation, deforestation and in some cases even desertification, with an enormous and irreversible impact on biodiversity in many of the regions in which they operate. A typical case is the environmental damage caused by the Mining Company MAJAZ, which, if it continues to expand, would be seriously detrimental to the Amazon Basin.

Many cases have also dramatically documented the impact of environmental crimes on food security, access to water, and the forced displacement of rural and indigenous communities from their homes and land. The case of the German company THYSSEN KRUPP in Brazil is a clear example: the installations of the company in the Bahia de Sepetiba are causing the environmental destruction of the bay and having grave impactson traditional fishing.

Cases of environmental destruction of vital resources have also been documented, particularly related to aquifer overexploitation (Aguas de Barcelona in Mexico), the construction of hydroelectric dams on rivers in Brazil (GDF-Suez, Banif-Santander) and Chile (Endesa / Enel), and plans to build a dam on the river Sogamoso (Impregilo in Colombia). Environmental destruction was also evident in the cases of Canal de Isabel II in Colombia, Holcim in Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, Pluspetrol and Perenco in Peru, Repsol in Argentina, and Louis Dreyfus, whose activities resulted in deforestation and pollution through pesticide spraying. In the case of Pescanova’s activities in Nicaragua the fishing exploitation of the Spanish multinational is seriously damaging the Nicaraguan mangrove swamps. These ecosystems are the source of elementary security and subsistence for thousands of families in the area of Estero, Nicaragua. Its activities are provoking irreparable environmental damage as well as affecting the economic and social development of the zone’s populations.

d) Violations of the rights of communities, peoples and indigenous nations and African descendents: The Tribunal heard allegations of cultural aggression and invasion of indigenous territories, as well as the destruction of the environment and traditional ways of life of indigenous people. The evidence presented showed the expulsion of communities from their lands, often accompanied by violence on the part of the army, the police or unregulated armed groups. In a number of cases abuse of authority was also proved, and even the indifference, inaction and sometimes complicity of certain judicial bodies. Cases of buying off people's consciences and co-opting individuals or communities were also found in a number of the testimonies, such as those presented in the case of UNION FENOSA operating in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua, which did not honour the commitment it had made to compensate displaced indigenous, peasant farmer and African descendent populations. In the case of SHELL, this Dutch-British company turned to illegal repression of Brazilian and Argentinean communities in Loma de la Lata and in Neuquen; REPSOL were pointed out as being responsible for the failure to respect the rights of the Paynemil and Kaxipayin Mapuches of Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. SHELL was also accused of requesting that the same repressive practices be used against communities defending their environmental rights in a European country (Ireland).

In the specific case of transnational corporations such as Perenco and Repsol in Peru, business activities threaten the survival of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. Such activities have been facilitated by the complicity of the Peruvian government, which failed to apply the law. Similar violations were observed in the case of Endesa/Enel in Chile, Repsol in Argentina, Pluspetrol in Peru, and Agrenco and Louis Dreyfus in Brazil in the fields of energy, oil exploration and expansion of biofuel monocultures.

e) Violations of the right to food sovereignty: The case of SYNGENTA, presented to the PPT by Via Campesina and Terra de Direitos, clearly documented how the mechanisms of massive contamination, violent repression by paramilitary forcesand criminalisation of opponents were consistently utilised in the absence of the State’s protection, or even with its complicity.

f) Damage to peoples’ health: The Tribunal has received convincing evidence of direct damage caused by contamination of aquifers and poisoning by insecticides. Two cases are particularly notable: a) the poisoning of 44 children from the Tauccamarca community by the German company Bayers Paration, and the resulting deaths of 24 indigenous children; b) the poisoning caused by the pesticide Nemagon, widely distributed by the Shell Oil Company, particularly in Honduras and Nicaragua, with dramatic consequences including illness and deaths. The Tribunal also heard accusations against ROCHE for their conduct in Brazil.

Furthermore, the Tribunal considered cases where generic medicines, in transit to Latin American countries, were confiscated in European harbours, under the accusation of violating European patents. These cases (including Aventis, Novartis, Pfizer, Warner Lambert y DuPont) violated the human rights to health and access to generic medicines used for the treatment of several illnesses in the affected countries.

Lastly, evidence was presented of how the privatisation of water (Proactiva Medioambiente, Ecuador) has led to reduced flow and a loss of water quality, resulting in negative impacts on public health. The PPT has also received complaints about the impact of hydroelectric dams on the River Madeira, Brazil, affecting public health (through water pollution by heavy metals and water system destruction).

g) Privatisation of public services: Evidence was presented of the non-transparent privatization of public services, particularly in the sectors of water and energy (Aguas de Barcelona in Mexico, Canal de Isabel II in Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Colombia and Union Fenosa in Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala), with rate increases, penalties for reconnection and electricity supply cuts.

h) Promotion of corruption: This has become an almost common mode of operation in all these processes, in which the different actors are implicated through the granting of exploration and production concessions to the extractive industries and the privatisations imposed on countries by the international financial institutions as a requirement in the agreements they sign. Particularly clear examples can be found in the cases of UNIÓN FENOSA, in their process of privatisation of energy distribution in Nicaragua (a law was modified to allow for a public tendering process with only one offer, which in the end was made by the UNION FENOSA), and of the Swedish construction company SKANSKA, accused of being involved in acts of corruption and the payment of surcharges in Peru, in the plan to widen the Camisea Gas Pipeline.


[i]               The PPT is an international “opinion tribunal” independent of State authorities. It succeeded the tribunal for crimes against humanity committed by the United States in the war against the Vietnamese people (the Russell Tribunals). Inspired by the Italian senator Lelio Basso, one of the leaders of the anti-fascist resistance in Italy. From the Russell Tribunals were born various organisms that took on the struggle for human rights for peoples amongst which is the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) that has become a permanent structure. The PPT is made up of nearly 130 members, named by the council of the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples (