In Paris this week on an official visit, Azerbaijan’s autocratic President Ilham Aliyev has already scored one photo op. Anyone reading yesterday’s Azeri media could see dozens of photos of Aliyev posing with leaders of top French companies, including Airbus, Suez, and Credit Agricole.
Today, President Hollande will receive President Aliyev and host an official dinner at Palais de l’Elysee. Again, Parisian photo ops abound. But amid the flashing cameras, one has to wonder where Azerbaijan’s repression of critics and the jailing of opponents fits in the new relationship between Paris and Baku?
In the past few years, Azerbaijani authorities have aggressively gone after the country’s once vibrant civil society, jailing dozens of activists, journalists, and political opponents. It also adopted draconian legislation making it virtually impossible for independent non-governmental organizations to operate.
One year ago, as Azerbaijan’s economy started to suffer from falling oil prices, several of those detained on political grounds were released. That was an important first step, but hopes for progress were short-lived.
Many of those released face travel bans or obstacles to their activities. Dozens are still locked up on political grounds, including opposition activist Ilgar Mammadov, despite repeated calls by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for his immediate release. And more activists have been thrown in jail. Recently, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, Mehman Huseynov, was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly defaming the police, in response to his brave public denouncement of the police abuses he suffered.
When visiting Paris, Brussels, or other European capitals, President Aliyev hopes to get more business opportunities and investment in Azerbaijan. But he prefers to ignore that the people of Azerbaijan want human rights protections, transparency, and good governance. Those standing up for these values are routinely exposed to attacks and harassment.
Yet what more clear message that Azerbaijan’s crackdown cannot be ignored by potential investors than last week’s decision by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, to suspend Azerbaijan – precisely because of its actions against civil society.
President Hollande should reject a narrative that only finance and economy matter in Azerbaijan. Human rights should be as central to France’s foreign policy as other topics.
Hollande should publicly call for the release of Ilgar Mammadov and all those detained in retaliation for their activism and criticism. A failure to explicitly support human rights principles would be the worst message to those unjustly waiting behind bars.
Arvind Ganesan is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Division. He leads the organization’s work to expose human rights abuses linked to business and other economic activity, hold institutions accountable, and develop standards to prevent future abuses. This work has included research and advocacy on awide range of issues includingthe extractive industries; public and private security providers; international financial institutions; freedom of expression and information through the internet; labor rights; supply chain monitoring and due diligence regimes; corruption; sanctions; and predatory practices against the poor. Ganesan’s work has covered countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, the United States, and Nigeria. His recent research has focused on predatory lending practices and governance issues on Native American reservations in the United States. He has written numerous reports, op-eds, and other articles and is widely cited by the media.
Ganesan has also worked to develop industry standards to ensure companies and other institutions respect human rights. He is a founder of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the oil, gas, and mining industries and is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) for the internet and telecommunications industries, where he also serves on the board. Ganesan has helped to develop standards for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and regularly engages governments in an effort to develop mandatory rules or strengthen existing standards such as the Kimberley Process. He serves on the board of EGJustice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea, and is a member of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)’s steering committee.
Before joining Human Rights Watch, Ganesan worked as a medical researcher. He attended the University of Oklahoma.
Please accept our regards on behalf of Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental human rights organization that conducts research and advocacy in about 90 countries around the world on a wide variety of human rights issues, including human rights abuses that occur in the context of global supply chains.
This year’s G20 summit, and the preceding Labor and Employment Ministerial Meeting, are important opportunities to advance the political commitment by G20 countries to protect human rights in global supply chains. We believe that the German Presidency of the G20, and your ministry in particular, could play a crucial role in shaping a strong agenda around global supply chains, building on Germany’s past leadership around this issue at the G7 and the International Labour Organization (ILO). We are therefore writing to make recommendations for the Ministerial Declaration as well as the final G20 Declaration.
Human Rights Watch has found that governments often fail to fulfill their duty to protect human rights through effective regulation of business activity, both domestically and abroad. It has also found that many businesses’ insufficient human rights safeguards have allowed abuses to proliferate. We have documented a wide range of human rights problems in the context of global supply chains. These include, for example, labor rights abuses and anti-union tactics against factory workers producing branded apparel and footwear, hazardous child labor in farms growing tobacco purchased by international cigarette manufacturers, and deadly accidents killing artisanal miners digging gold that is destined for the global market.
According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to carry out effective human rights due diligence, which includes an objective assessment of a company’s human rights risks coupled with effective steps to mitigate or avoid those risks. Companies also have a responsibility to help ensure that people who suffer abuses are able to access appropriate remedies. The UN Guiding Principles establish a useful framework to guide the conduct of responsible businesses. Yet, voluntary standards are not enough to ensure the protection of rights in supply chains. The standard’s voluntary nature means that there is no penalty for companies that choose to ignore it or fail to make serious efforts to live up to it. Where human rights due diligence has become mandatory through law and regulation, this has spurred companies into positive action, for example on public reporting.
In the context of the upcoming G20 Summit, Human Rights Watch therefore urges you to include robust commitments towards human rights due diligence in the draft Ministerial Declaration that you will be preparing and reviewing at the Employment Working Group meeting on 27-28 March in Geneva. We are also urging you to ensure that such commitments are fully included in the final G20 Declaration. In particular, we are recommending that:
- G20 governments commit to making human rights due diligence in global supply chains a legal requirement for companies, building on models developed by the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. The main elements of human rights due diligence should be based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
- G20 governments commit to legally requiring companies to publicly disclose their suppliers and report publicly on human rights due diligence efforts they are undertaking throughout their global operations.
- G20 governments express support for the decision of the 2016 International Labour Conference to review current ILO standards and to consider whether additional standards are needed to better protect human rights in global supply chains.
- G20 governments commit to making independent grievance mechanisms and remedy available and accessible for workers in global supply chains. Grievance mechanisms should be based on the principles for non-judicial grievance mechanisms laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and build on good practices developed for existing grievance mechanisms, including the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman at the International Finance Corporation (IFC). A grievance mechanism should include conflict resolution approaches and offer an independent investigation function as well as periodic public updates about the measures taken to address the human rights abuses.
- G20 governments commit to promoting and protecting space for civil society, trade unions, and communities to expose and demand an end to human rights violations in the context of global supply chains.
- G20 governments endorse the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and commit to developing substantive national action plans for implementation, if they have not done so.
- G20 governments commit to adhering to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, ensure that their National Contact Point (NCP) systems are independent and capable of delivering effective remedy, and commit to mandatory NCP peer review.
- G20 governments commit to expanding the G7 Vision Zero Fund, a multi donor fund to prevent work-related deaths and strengthen the application of ILO standards in global supply chains, to all G20 countries.
We would be happy to discuss these recommendations further with you and look forward to hearing from you.
Wenzel Michalski Juliane Kippenberg
Germany director Associate children’s rights director
Human Rights Watch Human Rights Watch
The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting better governance of resource-rich countries, has suspended Azerbaijan for failing to ease its crackdown on civil society groups.
Following years of scrutiny, and several warnings, the EITI decided Azerbaijan had failed to make progress on promises to reform laws shackling the country’s nongovernmental groups. Azerbaijan responded by cancelling its EITI membership.
The EITI, a coalition of governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups, fosters open public debate about the use of oil, gas, and mining revenues. The EITI requires member governments to foster “an enabling environment for civil society” and to “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI.”
Azerbaijan once touted its achievements in the EITI as the first fully-compliant country in the initiative since 2009. But in the past few years, Azerbaijan has systematically dismantled the country’s once vibrant civil society through the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists on bogus politically motivated charges, as well as by laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure funding.
Recognizing that the government’s crackdown on independent groups ran contrary to its EITI commitments, the initiative downgraded Azerbaijan from a full member to a candidate country in April 2015. And in October 2016, EITI gave Azerbaijan four months to eliminate legal and bureaucratic obstacles inhibiting civil society engagement in the initiative.
Although in January 2017, Azerbaijan undertook some superficial regulatory changes, it failed to address fundamental issues, leading to its suspension.
The authorities have continued to repeatedly harass and jail activists who advocate for good governance and transparency. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan imprisoned one of the country’s most popular journalists, Mehman Huseynov, who exposed high-level government corruption.
Azerbaijan’s decision to quit the EITI is regrettable, but it underlines Baku’s lack of genuine commitment to the governance principles, especially regarding civil society, embodied in the EITI. The decision should also raise red flags for international financial institutions – World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, Asia Development Bank, and others – which have publicly endorsed the EITI and committed to participation, transparency, and accountability.
In this environment of no effective public scrutiny, they should not fund projects benefiting Azerbaijan’s extractive industry or fund the government except for projects designed to directly address the urgent social and economic needs of the people. Otherwise, at best, they will be turning a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s crackdown. At worst they will be acquiescing to it.
February 10, 2017
Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
Ruseløkkveien 26, 0251
For distribution to Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Board Members
Dear Board Members,
We, the undersigned organizations, are writing in advance of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative's (EITI) Board meeting on March 8-9, where the board will review Azerbaijan's compliance with the corrective actions in relation to civil society outlined at the EITI October 2016 Board meeting. The government of Azerbaijan has not implemented the board’s recommendations and continues to show serious disregard for the principles on civil society engagement enshrined in the EITI Standard and the civil society protocol. For these reasons, Azerbaijan is not compliant with the EITI Standard on civil society engagement, and we urge you to suspend Azerbaijan from EITI.
As you are aware, in October 2016, the EITI Board gave Azerbaijan four months until the next EITI Board meeting to address a number of legislative and operational obstacles to civil society engagement in the Initiative. Specifically, corrective actions set forth by the Board oblige Azerbaijan to eliminate the requirements for:
- Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to obtain an extract [registration certificate] every two years confirming their registration, which serves as the basis for NGOs’ operation;
- Non-governmental organizations to register grants with the Ministry of Justice; and
- foreign donors to register individual grants with the authorities and obtain an opinion on the purposefulness (expediency) of the grant.
According to the Board's decision “failure to take corrective actions to the satisfaction of the Board will result in suspension in accordance with the EITI Standard.”
Over the past few months, the Azerbaijani government has introduced some changes to regulations governing the work of NGOs. However, the changes are limited to only certain rules and do not address the fundamental legislative obstacles identified by the EITI Board itself as needing to be amended. The changes in practice offer limited prospects for fundamentally improving the operating environment for independent civil society groups.
In January 2017, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted two decisions introducing changes to the Rules for Registration of Grant Agreements (Decisions) and the Rules for Foreign Donors’ Acquisition of the Right to Give Grants on the Territory of Azerbaijan Republic. The Cabinet of Ministers’ recent decisions follow the October 2016 Presidential Decree on Simplification of Registration of Foreign Grants in Azerbaijan, introduced shortly before the October EITI Board meeting. The decree called for the application of a “one stop shop” approach for foreign grants registration.
The new regulations simplify some procedures for registration of foreign grants and reduce the number of required documents. The new rules merge donor registration and NGO grant registration into one process overseen by the Ministry of Justice. The changes also eliminate the prohibition on NGOs signing grant contracts with a foreign donor who has not obtained the right to provide grants in Azerbaijan. Also, a foreign donor or an NGO grant recipient are no longer required to secure prior approval for grant registration from the Ministry of Finance, including an opinion on the financial expediency of the grant project. Now, the Ministry of Justice must seek a Ministry of Finance opinion on the grant project, following an NGO request to the Ministry of Justice for grant registration after a donor and NGO have signed grant agreement.
These regulatory changes simplify certain procedural aspects pertaining to registration of foreign grants. However, they do not address the legal requirement for NGOs to register grants, do not eliminate the requirement for the Ministry of Finance to provide an opinion on the expediency of each grant from a foreign donor, and the multi-step complex registration procedure for grants and foreign donors remains in place.
Most importantly, the regulatory changes do not eliminate the discretion of the authorities to arbitrarily deny grant registration. Nor do the regulatory changes address the deeply entrenched legal barriers to effective functioning of NGOs.
The Law on Grants and the Law on State Registration and State Register of Legal Entities, which are the sources of the three key legislative issues identified by the EITI Board in the corrective actions, remain unchanged. As a result:
- NGOs still need to register all changes, including minor changes, to their founding documents and obtain an extract [registration certificate] every two years (non-fulfillment of EITI Board requirement (a));
- NGOs must register grants with the Ministry of Justice (non-fulfillment of EITI board requirement (b)); and
- Foreign donors are required to register every grant individually and an opinion on the purposefulness (expediency) of the grant remains a requirement (non-fulfillment of EITI board requirement (c)).
Notwithstanding criticism of Azerbaijan’s legislation restricting NGOs ability to work and secure funding, from numerous authoritative bodies including various UN agencies, several parts of the Council of Europe, the Open Government Partnership and others, as well as ample opportunities to reform legislation paralysing the work of independent civil society, the government of Azerbaijan chooses not to honour its obligations under the EITI Standard and international human rights law and maintains the restrictive legislation.
Even after the EITI Board’s downgrading of Azerbaijan's status in EITI in April 2015, and the requirement for Azerbaijan to implement a number of corrective actions to ensure an enabling environment for civil society to meaningfully participate in EITI, the authorities continued to enact regulations further stifling independent civil society.
Moreover, in addition to this restrictive legislative and regulatory environment, the Azerbaijani authorities continue to harass activists who advocate for good governance, preventing civil society from participating in public debate and decision-making, including with regard to the extractive industries. Currently, two members of the EITI Azerbaijan Civil Society Coalition are imprisoned, and several other members have been forced to flee the country, fearing politically motivated prosecutions.
Most recently, on January 25, 2017 an Azerbaijani court sentenced Fuad Gahramanli, a member of the EITI Azerbaijan Civil Society Coalition, to 10 years in prison on false charges of inciting the public to disobey the government, making appeals against the government, and incitement of national, racial, social, or religious hostility, in retaliation for his Facebook posts criticizing government policies. Amnesty International considers Gahramanli to be a prisoner of conscience, prosecuted in retaliation for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. Another member of the EITI Azerbaijan Civil Society Coalition, Asif Yusifli, is serving a six-year prison sentence, following his conviction in 2015, on trumped-up fraud and forgery charges.
The authorities refuse to issue Oktay Gulaliyev, an active member of the EITI coalition, an international passport, effectively placing him under a travel ban, despite the fact that the authorities dropped spurious criminal charges against him a few days before the October 2016 EITI board meeting. The authorities have refused to register Gulaliyev’s human rights NGO, Public Association for Democratic Reform, despite his repeated attempts to register since 1999. In October 2016, the Ministry of Justice, without consulting Gulaliyev, registered the organization under a different name, the Public Union on Support to Development, with the completely different mandate of financial analysis and reporting. Gulaliyev officially complained to the Ministry of Justice about these changes that he did not authorize, but received no response.
In late October 2016, the authorities claimed they had registered 17 other organizations participating in the EITI Azerbaijan NGO Coalition. However, there is no information publicly available about these registered organizations. The authorities have not responded to numerous requests by EITI coalition members for information about the identity of these groups. The Ministry of Justice denies registration to many NGOs, including at least 30 independent NGOs members of the EITI Azerbaijan NGO Coalition.
We applaud the EITI Board’s commitment to fostering an enabling legal and operational environment for civil society in Azerbaijan, and consider EITI Board Chair Fredrik Reinfeldt’s recent visit to Baku an important signal of the Board’s commitments to these issues.
As described above, Azerbaijan has once again failed to implement the corrective actions outlined by the EITI Board and amend the legislative and operational barriers to the work of NGOs. The restrictive legislative framework negatively impacts the ability of groups in the EITI coalition and many other organizations to function. The superficial changes in the rules of registration of foreign grants fail to address the fundamental issues that led to downgrading Azerbaijan’s status in EITI in 2015 and the specific, non-negotiable corrective actions set by the EITI Board in October 2016.
We therefore call on the members of the EITI Board to abide by EITI commitments to civil society and the pledge set forth at the October 2016 EITI Board meeting, and suspend Azerbaijan's membership for its failure to implement the corrective actions established by the Board, and for its continued intentional arbitrary interference in the activities of independent non-governmental organizations.
By overlooking Azerbaijan’s failure to comply with a very clear set of corrective actions established by the Board, the credibility of the EITI validation process, particularly with regard to the EITI’s commitment to civil society participation within the initiative, would be severely undermined.
We thank you for your attention to this crucial matter.
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(London) – The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international coalition, should suspend Azerbaijan’s membership for failing to carry out key reforms, a coalition of 21 groups including Human Rights Watch, ARTICLE 19, and International Media Support said today. The EITI, during its board meeting in Bogota, Colombia, on March 8 and 9, 2017, will review Azerbaijan’s efforts to ease its repression of civil society groups as the EITI had required.
“The Azerbaijani government is snubbing the EITI by ignoring its requirements for reforms and by systematically dismantling the country’s independent civil society,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Following numerous reviews and warnings, the EITI should suspend Azerbaijan’s further participation until the government makes serious, lasting changes to allow nongovernmental groups to operate freely in Azerbaijan.”
The EITI brings together governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about the use of oil, gas, and mining revenues. The EITI requires member governments to foster “an enabling environment for civil society” and to “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI.”
At its most recent board meeting, in October 2016, the EITI gave Azerbaijan four months to eliminate legal and bureaucratic obstacles inhibiting civil society engagement in the initiative. It required Azerbaijan to simplify procedures for registration of nongovernmental organizations and for the receipt and registration of grants from foreign donors. The reforms would eliminate some mechanisms for the government to interfere with and stop the work of independent groups. The EITI had downgraded Azerbaijan from a full member to a candidate country in April 2015, due to the government’s interference with independent civil society.
A joint letter signed by 22 human rights groups worldwide and sent to EITI board members on February 10, 2017 assessed the Azerbaijan government’s lack of progress on the reforms identified by the EITI and called on the board to suspend Azerbaijan.
In January, Azerbaijan’s Cabinet of Ministers adopted two decisions changing regulations for donor organizations and grant registrations. While the new regulations simplify some procedures for grant registration and reduce the number of required documents, they do not repeal the restrictive laws and fail to meet the EITI’s demands, the groups said.
“Superficial regulatory changes don’t address the fundamental issues that led to downgrading Azerbaijan’s status in the EITI, or the specific corrective actions set by the board,” said Katie Morris, head of Europe and Central Asia for ARTICLE 19. “The credibility of the EITI validation process requires the initiative to suspend Azerbaijan for its failure to comply with the initiative’s commitment to civil society participation.”
The Azerbaijani authorities repeatedly harass activists who advocate good governance and transparency, preventing civil society groups from participating in public debate and advocacy, including on extractive industries, the pillar of Azerbaijan’s economy. Two members of the local civil society coalition that participates in the EITI remain jailed on spurious charges, and several other members have been forced to flee the country, fearing politically motivated prosecutions.
“Local groups in Azerbaijan are counting on the EITI to remain principled and stand up for them and their essential contributions to public accountability and transparency,” said Gulnara Akhundova, head of global response at International Media Support. “Azerbaijan’s embattled civil society deserves nothing less than clear and unbiased support from EITI’s international board.”
Our lives are full of products produced in faraway countries, under conditions we don’t know – think of the vegetables you eat, the clothes you wear, or even the device you are reading this on. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses in the supply chains that produce these products, including child labor, attacks on trade unionists, and ill health from toxic pollution.
Last week, France took a historic step toward reducing these human rights abuses. Parliament passed a law that pushes for accountability for multinational companies sourcing from global supply chains. The “duty of vigilance” law requires companies to establish safeguards designed to ensure that labor rights and other human rights are respected in the production sites they source from.
This good law unfortunately does not have many counterparts elsewhere. There are very few laws around the world that oblige companies to have such safeguards, called “due diligence,” in place. One of the few other laws of this kind, the rules under a United States law on so-called conflict minerals, may soon be suspended by the Trump administration.
Governments are often reluctant to regulate businesses, particularly when it comes to their global supply chains. But binding regulations benefit businesses that want to do the right thing without being overtaken by competitors who don’t care about conditions in their supply chains. Companies such as Apple and Tiffany have made that case, since they oppose suspending the US conflict minerals rule.
Ultimately, a global standard for human rights in supply chains is needed. While this is not going to happen soon, the International Labour Organization last year decided to consider the idea of a new multinational treaty more closely. In the meantime, let’s hope France’s action inspires other countries to move ahead with their own laws to reduce abuses in global supply chains.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank, responded to allegations that a power plant it financed harmed fisher folk in Gujarat, India. Such cases are exceptional because the World Bank Group typically claims immunity as an international organization, which US courts have largely accepted.
While private banks manage to lend internationally without immunity, the IFC—which lends money to companies with the aim of achieving the World Bank Group’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity—contends that it needs immunity from the poor in order to do business.
There is little recourse for communities harmed by World Bank-financed projects. The communities can appeal to the institution’s apparent good will, hope that the media will shame the institution into doing the right thing or complain to the institution’s internal, independent accountability mechanisms. The IFC’s accountability mechanism, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, investigates alleged violations of IFC policy. But it is the IFC that determines how to address the investigator’s findings and often it chooses not to.
In India, fishing communities and farmers unsuccessfully tried this approach. Even after the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman found that the IFC had breached its policies, the IFC didn’t fix the problems. So, in April 2015, these communities sued the IFC in the US District Court in Washington. They alleged that the pollution from the IFC-funded Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant in the state of Gujarat was a threat to their health and had destroyed their livelihoods and property. The District Court dismissed the case, finding that the IFC had not waived its immunity.
The communities’ lawyers, EarthRights International, are asking the US Court of Appeals to overturn the District Court’s decision and rule that the IFC’s immunity is not absolute. They have asked the court to find a narrow gap in the IFC’s immunity for cases in which the IFC’s accountability body determined that the IFC caused harm to communities by not complying with its own rules, and in which the IFC failed to address these findings. The case, Budha Ismail Jam v. International Finance Corporation, was heard before a three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The IFC argued that losing “absolute immunity” would open the “floodgates” for a host of other lawsuits against them. One judge seemed incredulous, asking counsel to clarify that this was in fact the IFC’s argument. Is it so commonplace for the IFC to defy its own rules that a deluge of cases would follow? The IFC’s lawyer also said that the IFC would be less willing to make loans if a court could hold the IFC to account when it disregards its own policies.
Meanwhile, the IFC still won’t address the problems with Tata Mundra. The day after the hearing, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman published its most recent monitoring report, highlighting that the IFC still has not fixed the problems it identified more than three years ago. The IFC is sending a clear message that left to its own devices, it won’t comply with its policies or address the problems it creates. It refuses to fix its mistakes while communities continue to suffer. If the IFC is confident that it is not responsible for the harm the community claimed, it should waive immunity and argue the case on its merits.
This lawsuit could have been avoided if the IFC’s board of executive directors required IFC management to fully address the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman’s findings and work with their clients to remedy all harm that communities suffer. The board is composed of IFC’s shareholder governments. One judge highlighted the “awkward position” that the board is putting the court in by failing to do its job.
Tata Mundra is one of several cases in which the IFC has avoided accountability. In November 2016, the ombudsman found that the IFC failed to identify and address basic risks like grossly inadequate living conditions for workers and child labor when it invested in an Indian tea project. The IFC has acknowledged some of the findings, while contesting and failing to address others.
The IFC’s immunity puts communities harmed by its investments at the IFC’s whim. It allows the IFC to violate its own rules with impunity. Holding the IFC to account is long overdue. No institution should have immunity when it causes, contributes to or exacerbates human rights abuses.
Jessica Evans is the senior advocate and researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch.
It’s been a torrid few years for Bangladesh’s lucrative garment-making industry. There was the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when more than 1,100 workers died when an eight-story factory collapsed on top of them. In the years since the disaster, global clothing brands have become increasingly concerned about workers’ rights in Bangladesh.
Following pressure from rights groups and uncomfortable media exposés in the aftermath of the Ashulia wage strikes in the outskirts of Dhaka, international brands are starting to vote with their feet by refusing to participate in the upcoming Dhaka Apparel Summit later this month.
The summit is being hosted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA). Two key speakers who were supposed to address the summit are no longer listed in the event program: the global head of production of clothing giant H&M, and a representative of the C&A Foundation, a foundation funded by the Dutch mega brand C&A.
Meanwhile, the global union federation IndustriALL confirmed that global brands H&M, Inditex, C&A, and Tchibo have pulled out of the summit “citing the current climate of repression against unions as incompatible with activities to promote the industry.”
This signals global brands’ strong displeasure at how the government, BGMEA, and some of its members have dealt with recent Ashulia strikes. The police harassed and arrested some union leaders and workers on apparently fabricated criminal cases after they went on strike over low wages.
The BGMEA says it is “working together to reach amicable settlements, wherever possible” with regard to the criminal cases filed by factories. But such non-committal platitudes are not enough. If it’s to win back the confidence of global garment brands it should urge factories affiliated to BGMEA to withdraw or support the quashing of all of the abusive criminal proceedings initiated by them and urge authorities to drop such cases. It should urge factories to rehire the workers that were unfairly sacked or suspended over the Ashulia strikes. It should also tackle disturbing reports that some of its members thwart workers who try to set up unions.
It should also address the need for a wage review, which was the principal cause of the strikes. Despite wage hikes in the country’s garment sector, workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest paid in the industry. It’s certainly possible for factories to do more; workers in two Ashulia factories, Donglian Fashion and Natural Denims Ltd., recently successfully negotiated a wage hike with employers. Currently, garment workers in Bangladesh earn so little that their average compensation falls below the World Bank’s poverty line. This injustice should not continue.
As Malawi’s government promotes investment in mining and resource extraction, ordinary Malawians have been struggling to access information on the impact of mining operations on their lives: Is mining polluting their drinking water? Their fields? Last week, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika took a positive step by signing into law a bill that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results.
Malawi’s civil society organizations have advocated for such a law for many years. Last September, Human Rights Watch released a report showing how Malawians have been left in the dark about the risks mining activities pose to their daily lives.
For example, Rosbelle, a mother of seven children, told us that a couple of years ago, the Eland Coal Mining company started mining coal near her village in rural northern Malawi. The company promised villagers a new school and jobs, and Rosbelle had high hopes for her children’s future. But in 2015, Eland Coal Mining – a subsidiary of a Norwegian-owned company – ended its operations and abandoned the mine. There was no rehabilitation of the mine site, and left behind were piles of coal and open mining pits filled with water. Since then, Rosbelle has worried that the water that she and her children drink might be polluted by toxic substances often found at improperly cleaned-up mining sites. Eland Coal Mining did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.
When I spoke with Rosbelle last year, she said that, at a minimum, the “government should come and talk to the community about mining” and “educate us including about the risks.” But the authorities have never told them about the dangers of mining and whether the water from the local river and boreholes is safe to drink. Her village and other mining communities, as well as local organizations, have repeatedly asked the government to release the results of water testing, without avail.
For the new law to make a meaningful difference, Malawians need to know how they can use it. Accessing information under the law should be a simple process for everyone – including for people who cannot read or write. Training sessions for communities and government officials will also be important. Civil society organizations and journalists can play an important role by raising awareness about the right to information and holding the government and mining companies to account. The new law, if carried out effectively, could be a boon to mining communities like Rosbelle’s that have long sought answers to questions literally of life and death
(Washington, DC) – A recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) confirms the scope and systematic nature of forced labor of Uzbek citizens during Uzbekistan’s 2016 cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign said today. But the Uzbek government’s involvement in the research appeared to undermine the results and may also have led the ILO to not give sufficient weight to the evidence of abuses presented by independent Uzbek civil society monitors.
The ILO found that “sustainable elimination of the risk of child and forced labor remains a prominent issue” in Uzbekistan and concludes that about one third of the 2.8 million cotton pickers that the ILO estimates are involved in the annual cotton harvest were “non-voluntary.” The figure is in line with Cotton Campaign estimates of the size of the population of forced laborers. Many of the ILO’s findings on forced labor correspond to evidence collected by independent Uzbek monitors on the ground. But the involvement of government officials in the organization’s research and other possible government pressure appears to have led to some efforts to downplay the scope and severity of forced labor throughout the country, for example by the report’s use of terms such as “non-voluntary” or “reluctant” to describe forced laborers, the Cotton Campaign said.
“The government of Uzbekistan uses a mass, forced mobilization of citizens to harvest cotton every year,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), which monitors labor and human rights in Uzbekistan relying on a network of activists across the country. “People are made to harvest cotton under threat of losing their livelihoods, their education, or social benefits to which they are entitled, and upon which they depend.”
The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations, including human rights groups from Uzbekistan, estimates that over 1 million Uzbek citizens are forced by Uzbek authorities to harvest cotton annually in often abusive conditions under threat of punishment. Responding to ongoing reports of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan cotton sector, the ILO monitored labor conditions during the country’s 2016 harvest, from the beginning of September to the end of November.
But the ILO conducted its survey in conjunction with Uzbek union officials aligned with the government, undermining the credibility of its conclusions. Forced laborers and farmers were required to answer questions in the presence of officials from the government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan (FTUU), denying respondents confidentiality or anonymity, despite Uzbekistan’s well-known and pervasive system of surveillance, repression, and retaliation for criticism of the government.
The ILO noted in its report that “many interviewees appeared to have been briefed in advance.” Independent Uzbek monitors also confirmed that local administrators coached people on what to say when questioned by ILO monitors.
The FTUU chair was appointed by the government after the previous chair became deputy prime minister. The union was tasked by the Uzbek government with ensuring control over the cotton pickers in a protocol issued by Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers in July 2016, which detailed an order to deploy all medical and educational staff to pick cotton.
The findings in the ILO report also demonstrate how businesses with Uzbek cotton in their supply chains, or organizations supporting projects in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, risk their own reputations by being associated with the state-run forced labor system.
The ILO report documented that institutions of higher education across the country were essentially closed so that Uzbek students could be mobilized to pick cotton for an entire month. It further noted that, “given the dependency of students on the authorities who participate in the recruitment, the real extent of voluntariness is unclear.”
The ILO found as well that public and private organizations were forced to mobilize staff or, in some cases, pay to have staff excluded from cotton picking. It found that school officials, employers, and state organs were involved in recruiting labor for the harvest, that nearly all cotton pickers were recruited by one of these “intermediaries,” and that many who harvest cotton do so because, “recruitment is effectively carried out by those on whom they depend for their primary income or education.”
Independent Uzbek civil society monitors also documented in their preliminary findings ample evidence of continued government-led forced labor. The ILO report confirmed some of these findings:
- Independent monitors documented forced labor of children and adults in areas of the country with projects financed/administered by the World Bank. The ILO conclusions found no evidence of force labor in World Bank project areas, but stated that World Bank project areas “share similar risks” of forced labor as other regions of Uzbekistan because they are not excluded from the national system of coerced labor recruitment;
- Government-led campaigns to raise awareness about and end forced and child labor were insufficient. Independent Uzbek civil society monitors demonstrated that people the ILO interviewed were afraid to report incidents of forced labor, and told independent monitors that the SMS and banner campaigns on labor rights were, “not for us,” because they were still told they would lose their jobs or be expelled if they didn’t participate. The ILO report also documented the limitations of awareness-raising efforts, noting that awareness-raising messages were “submerged by cotton harvest recruitment campaigns”; and
- Independent monitors documented cases in which students were expelled for refusing to participate, and at least one teacher was fired for refusing to harvest cotton. The ILO found that recruiters were often people with authority over the cotton picker – an employer or school administrator in many cases.
The ILO report did not touch on another aspect of the forced labor situation, however – that human rights activists and journalists were repeatedly arrested and harassed by local authorities for their attempts to document cotton harvest.
The ILO should ensure its site visits are free from interference by the government and insist that Uzbek citizens who monitor conditions in the fields be free from retaliation, arbitrary detention, or other abuses, the Cotton Campaign said.
“The death of Uzbekistan’s autocratic leader, Islam Karimov, last August and the election to the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in December have not translated into meaningful human rights improvements on the ground,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The ILO report’s findings are clearly not the whole story when human rights activists who monitor the cotton harvest suffer brutal attacks and harassment.”
(New York) – Dozens of garment workers and labor leaders are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases in Bangladesh after wage strikes in December 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Arbitrary arrests by the Bangladesh police are growing with each passing day – nine more union organizers were arrested on February 10, taking the number of known arrests to 34.
The Bangladesh authorities should immediately release those still in detention and drop all politically motivated charges.
Global brands and donors attending the February 25, 2017 Dhaka Apparel Summit hosted by the country’s garment export association should call on the government to stop all persecution of union leaders and protect workers’ freedom of association.
“Targeting labor activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labor rights activists.”
Thousands of garment workers outside Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, participated in wage strikes between December 11 and 19. They came from an estimated 20 factories that supply global brands based in the Ashulia industrial area. According to information by local groups and official information, the vast majority were from factories that had no unions. The national union federations deny they had any role in or prior knowledge about these strikes. But the Bangladesh authorities used these strikes as a justification to arrest national union federation leaders and labor activists for “leading” and “planning” the strikes.
Workers say that strikes are often the only means for them to raise their grievances, in part because the government and local employers retaliate against union organizers and workers trying to organize. As a result, workers are unable to bargain collectively with employers and use formal channels for addressing grievances.
The workers coalesced behind a demand for a monthly minimum wage increase from 5,300 takas (US$67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200). In 2016, the Fair Labor Association found that the purchasing power of a Bangladesh factory worker’s average compensation was below the World Bank poverty line. Both the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) and the government rejected a wage review. The export association closed about 60 Ashulia factories for several days, effectively locking out thousands of workers and ending the strikes.
In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and worker advocates were targeted.
Rights groups have information about 10 criminal complaints filed in December 2016, implicating about 150 named workers and over 1,600 “unknown” people for crimes, including property destruction at the factories, during the strikes. Union leaders and organizers have also now been questioned or arrested in relation to older cases. These groups are aware of 34 people who were arrested, most of them union leaders. In addition, a journalist from the ETV, a local news channel, was arrested for reporting about the strikes. A news report from early January suggests the numbers are higher, stating the police had arrested at least 44 people and were identifying another 159 suspects. The police have not provided a full list of all those arrested and where they are being held.
Based on interviews with rights groups, lawyers, and workers, and police records, Human Rights Watch found the circumstances of many of the arrests following the Ashulia strikes point to politically motivated abuse of police powers to retaliate against labor organizers rather than credible allegations of crimes. Some of the police abuse tactics in the aftermath of the Ashulia strikes mirror those previously used by authorities in other related and unrelated human rights matters. These include:
- Arrests based on vague or repealed offenses from the draconian Special Powers Act, 1974;
- The use of criminal complaints against large numbers of “unknown” people allowing the police to threaten virtually anyone with arrest, to repeatedly re-arrest detainees even though they are not the named accused in the cases, and to thwart bail;
- The misuse of powers of “arrest without warrant” in violation of Bangladesh High Court directives, effectively making pretrial detention itself a form of punishment;
- Violations of procedural safeguards aimed at counteracting forced confessions through torture, or cruel, inhuman, and other degrading treatment;
- Threats by police to kill two detainees and claim they were killed in “crossfire” in a shootout with police, and a death threat to an official from the Bangladesh Independent Garments Union Federation;
- Harassment and intimidation of labor activists and workers in the name of “investigations”;
- The arrest of a journalist under the vague section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2015.
The Bangladesh authorities should stop pressing these criminal cases and hold any police officers who used forced disappearances, torture, death threats, and other abusive police practices after the Ashulia strikes accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
According to a news report, the National Revenue Board has also written to banks requesting all account-related information dating from July 1, 2009 for six union leaders and some of their spouses.
“The Bangladeshi authorities seem determined to intimidate labor leaders and workers with the constant threat of arbitrary arrests to fill up the ‘unknown’ tally of alleged troublemakers,” Robertson said. “A familiar pattern of criminal cases being used against rights activists is unfolding after the Ashulia strikes.”
Based on information from workers, local labor rights groups, and newspaper reports, some Ashulia factories have also retaliated against an estimated 1,500 workers by indiscriminately firing or suspending them.
Donors and brands sourcing from Bangladesh have the responsibility to respect and protect workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said. They should call for an end to all harassment of labor leaders, workers, and journalists, including by ending the false criminal cases.
Brands sourcing from Bangladesh should make binding agreements with local and global unions to protect freedom of association, modeled on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an enforceable agreement between workers and brands with a dispute resolution mechanism. Voluntary commitments in brands’ codes of conduct are ineffective to counter factory retaliation against unions.
In the interim, brands should ensure their suppliers develop corrective action plans with worker representatives, including the option of reinstating fired workers and negotiating collective bargaining agreements to resolve wage disputes.
For details about the strikes and the aftermath, please see below.
The Bangladesh Garment Industry
The Bangladesh garment industry employs about 4 million workers and generates exports worth about US$25 billion. But the country’s dismal labor rights record is marked by persistent abuses including a lack of periodic wage reviews, wage theft, management thwarting unionization in factories, and poor fire and building safety. The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured another 2,000, forced the Bangladesh government, global brands, and factories to take steps to address fire and building safety, leading to some improvements.
In 2016, the Fair Labor Association found that for the factories it assessed in Bangladesh, the purchasing power of average compensation fell below the World Bank poverty line compared with other big apparel producers like China and Vietnam, where average compensation is 2.5 times the poverty line.
In the aftermath of the Ashulia strikes, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 32 workers, residents, and passersby in Ashulia. Human Rights Watch also interviewed union leaders, rights groups, and legal experts in Bangladesh, and reviewed police and other official documents and news reports. The interviews were conducted with informed consent and all names have been withheld to protect them.
The Ashulia Strikes
A wildcat strike started in Windy Apparel Ltd., which has no union, on December 11, 2016. Between December 11 and 19, workers from other factories joined the strike for various reasons. For example, in addition to seeking better wages, workers from one factory with about 400 workers told Human Rights Watch that they joined the strikes because they were also aggrieved by sexual threats and abusive taunts by a supervisor and the recent firing of a worker who was trying to form a union.
Some workers from other factories told Human Rights Watch they joined the strikes when their factory owners or managers promised a wage increase if other factories did the same. In some instances, workers said supervisors and other mid-level factory management encouraged them to strike because they believed they would also receive a pay increase if workers’ demands were successful.
During this period, high-level government officials convened multiple rounds of discussions with some factory owners and national federation union leaders about the strikes. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) refused workers’ demands for a wage review, contending that the government could not order one until 2018, that is, until five years after the previous wage review, and the government agreed. However, labor law experts told Human Rights Watch that the government can order a wage review at any time under section 140A of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006.
Labor rights groups told Human Rights Watch that in these meetings government officials ordered union federation leaders to compel workers to return to factories, disregarding the union leaders’ explanations that they had no power over workers in Ashulia’s striking factories because a vast majority of them have no unions. The strikes were ended by the December 20 factory shut down by the BGMEA.
Meanwhile, Donglian Fashion (BD) Ltd., one of the few Ashulia factories that has a registered union and whose workers did not join the spontaneous strike, resolved the wage dispute in January through a collective bargaining process that had started in November. The final agreement lays down the percentage of annual wage increase for workers, rules governing attendance bonus, and a grievance redress procedure.
Disappearance and “Arrest” Technique
Based on information from lawyers, labor rights groups, and other credible sources, many union leaders vanished. More than 24 hours later, police brought them before a court; at no times before did the police acknowledge or provide any information about their formal arrest or legal detention:
- Shoumitro Kumar Das, president, Garment Sromik Front Regional Committee;
- Ahmed Jibon, general secretary, Garment Sromik Front;
- Al Kamran, president, Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sromik Federation Savar-Ashulia-Dhamrai Regional Committee;
- Shakil Ahmed, general secretary, Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sromik Federation Regional Committee;
- Shamim Khan, president, Bangladesh Trinomul Garment Sromik-Kormochari Federation;
- Mizanur Rahman, Textile Workers Federation;
- Mohammed Ibrahim, coordinator, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity;
- Rafiqul Islam Sujon, president, Garment and Industry Sromik Federation;
- Jahangir, president, Designer Jeans Ltd. factory union;
- Nazmul Huda, journalist.
Following a meeting with the industrial police on the morning of December 21 in an Ashulia theme park, seven union leaders vanished. Their phones were switched off and calls from relatives and colleagues to various police departments yielded no information about them. Plainclothes policemen went to Jahangir’s home late that night and took him away, promising his wife that he would return in 30 minutes. He did not return and was unreachable. Police did not inform his family about his whereabouts.
On the night of December 22, the police produced the eight labor leaders in court. Because contact with those in detention is limited, details of their detention conditions are patchy. Lawyers said at least four of them – Kamran, Ahmed, Rahman, and Ibrahim – reported being blindfolded and detained in an undisclosed location by the detective branch; one was beaten, and another was threatened with being “cross-fired” (being killed in a staged exchange of fire with the police).
Before the detainees had access to lawyers or were produced in court, the police recorded in Complaint No. 30/524, filed on December 22, that the eight union leaders had “confessed” to instigating the strike by conducting secret meetings, distributing leaflets, and providing economic support.
On December 23, police called Huda, the journalist, invited him to a news conference, and when he arrived, forced him into a police vehicle, beat him, and drove him around Dhaka until around 4 a.m., threatening him with a “cross-fire” killing. He was produced in court the following day. Ahmed Jibon also vanished following a detective branch police phone call asking him to meet with them on the morning of December 27, and was untraceable until he was produced in court the following morning.
Use of the Repressive Special Powers Act
The draconian Special Powers Act violates the accused’s rights to due process and other international human rights standards. A leading criminal law expert told Human Rights Watch that these cases are the first time these offenses have been used against garment workers and union organizers. He also said that these are usually triable by a special tribunal, making it harder for regular criminal courts to grant pretrial bail.
The police accused some labor leaders of “sabotage” – an offense so vaguely defined that it can be abused to criminalize any exercise of workers’ freedom of association. For example, a person commits the offense of sabotage if he or she does any act “with intent to impair the efficiency or impede the working of, or to cause damage to…[a] factory.”
The police have similarly filed spurious criminal complaints against nine labor leaders for committing “prejudicial acts,” an offense that has been repealed. The Shomajtontrik Sromik Front, a national union federation, challenged the use of the repealed offense in January 2017 in the Bangladesh High Court, which ruled it unlawful and ordered the magistrate’s court to release a leader of the union, Ahmed Jibon, on bail.
According to a leading criminal law expert who spoke with Human Rights Watch, the police violated Bangladesh Supreme Court rulings in their application of the Special Powers Act, where the court clearly held that even where there is damage to private property, the Special Powers Act offenses cannot be used since it does not constitute a security related offense against the state. Rights groups have repeatedly called for full repeal of the act.
Abusing the Threat of Arrest and Re-Arrest
The police intimidated labor leaders and workers by registering criminal complaints against “unknown” persons, allowing them to misuse the threat of arrest against anyone. Human Rights Watch has documented previous and routine use of this technique. The open-ended complaints against over 1,600 “unknown” people for committing crimes during the Ashulia strikes have been abused to implicate union leaders, some of whom have been arrested in as many as nine cases each. Most recently, the police rearrested Jibon, soon after a magistrate’s court released him on bail.
Police arrested three more labor leaders – Asadur Zaman, Golam Arif, and Ronju – from the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) soon after the Ashulia strikes and implicated them in old cases from January 2015 unrelated to the strikes. These were filed in Gazipur during the 2015 nationwide blockade called by a 20-party alliance led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. None of them had been accused or previously questioned in relation to those cases. Nine more labor organizers were similarly arrested on February 10, in relation to case from August 2016, accused of obstructing police work, and released on bail on February 13.
Trumped Up, Vague Allegations
Nine of the complaints were filed by factories against some known and many “unknown” persons, each alleging a variety of crimes.
A leading criminal law expert who has reviewed these complaints told Human Rights Watch that most allegations are vague and appeared as if the “FIRs [police first information reports] were prepared at the instruction of the same person. Police just copied them by changing the names.”
Where allegations specifically detailed property damage, such as destruction of factory doors, windows, and machinery, there is no corroborating information. None of the workers Human Rights Watch was able to interview in a few of these factories and who had resumed work inside these factories said they had seen any freshly replaced machinery or fixtures, or recently damaged machinery or fixtures awaiting repairs. Local residents said they did not witness any looting or violence. On the contrary, they said the areas were teeming with police, who had put up barricades.
In one case, the factory alleged in its complaint that workers made an “irrational demand” on December 14, 2016, then disrupted work by going on strike. Workers told Human Rights Watch that a fire alarm went off that day, and management told workers to leave. Some who tried to return were told they did not need to. Workers also said that mid-level factory management and supervisors had encouraged them to leave the factory and join the strike – telling the workers that if they joined the strikes, the managers’ salaries would increase too.
The same factory manager alleged in his complaint that some workers turned violent at about 8:45 a.m. on December 20, allegedly breaking machinery and damaging glass doors and windows worth 1 million takas (US$12,492). However, workers told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of December 19, supervisors had instructed at least some of the workers to arrive late the following morning. By the time these workers arrived, the gates were closed and they were told the factory was indefinitely closed.
In another case, a factory official filed a complaint alleging that at around 8:45 a.m. on December 19, 15 named workers and 40 to 50 unknown people damaged machinery, doors, and windows worth 300,000 takas (roughly US$3,770) and looted garments worth 200,000 takas (roughly $2,515) after beating and threatening factory officials. They also alleged that the workers they named colluded with 40 to 50 unknown others and rioted on the street outside the factory, destroying vehicles. They said this forced the factory to close down for a few days.
Factory workers told Human Rights Watch that on December 19, officials announced through loudspeakers that the factory was closing and ordered workers to go home. The workers complied and left and said they saw no evidence of violence on the way out. And despite allegations of extensive damage, the workers who resumed work inside the factory after it re-opened said they did not see any freshly repaired or installed fixtures, or damaged fixtures, or hear about any such damages.
Police Harassment of Labor Activists and Death Threats to BIGUF Leader
Starting in mid-December, the Solidarity Center, which works closely with workers and unions, documented instances in which 14 national union federations were either forced by police to shut their offices in Ashulia, Gazipur, and Chittagong, or closed them because of police harassment.
According to a written incident report by the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) on January 20, two plainclothes policemen interrupted an ILO-sponsored health and safety training program organized in BIGUF’s Gazipur office, demanding to meet with two BIGUF organizers. More uniformed police officers entered the premises, gathered all BIGUF staff and program participants in the seminar room, noted down their personal details, and warned that they should not participate in BIGUF’s activities. According to BIGUF, one of the policemen also threatened Rashedul Alam Raju, the union federation vice-president, who was not in the room, saying that he would be caught and drowned in drain water.
Human Rights Watch has reported on a recurring pattern of such harassment in the past. In 2010, the police detained and harassed activists from the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). Aminul Islam, one of the detainees, told other rights groups that the police had tortured and threatened to kill him. In April 2012, Aminul vanished and was subsequently found murdered with torture marks under circumstances that raise concerns of involvement by Bangladeshi security forces. Till today, the police investigation has failed to find suspects, and officials have not responded to a call by international rights groups and aid donors for an independent investigation.
Retaliatory Firing, Black-Listing of Factory Workers
According to information from rights groups and news reports, factory managers dismissed or suspended an estimated 1,500 workers in Ashulia after the strikes. Some workers told Human Rights Watch that their factory managers promised to send them a show-cause notice back in their homes in the village but had received no further information. Other workers said that factory officials or supervisors told them on the phone that they should not come to the factory because they would be arrested, without offering any further explanation. A third group said that factory officials gave them a show-cause notice, in standard format, with seven days to respond to allegations that they participated in or instigated violent strikes. Human Rights Watch has seen some of these notices. None was tailored to an individual worker, specifying clearly how they were implicated in the strikes, but included broad, vague allegations addressed to a group of workers.
These retaliatory dismissals and suspensions appear indiscriminate, Human Rights Watch said. Factory management also opportunistically dismissed workers perceived as “unproductive” or “trouble-makers.” A pregnant worker said that she was dismissed even though she did not participate in any strikes because of her pregnancy. A male worker who was on sick leave said he was dismissed, and a female worker said she believed she was targeted because she had complained of sexual harassment at the workplace.
One worker who was fired said he was finding it impossible to find employment in other factories:
My life has been seriously affected…I tried for a job in several factories after the incident. In January, I joined Envoy Group and worked for about half an hour. But an official came and said he cannot appoint me, without giving any explanation. Later a security guard told me our photos were emailed to other factories and that’s how they identified me. I am thinking of leaving the Ashulia area, but I don’t know if I will get a job in other areas. I have to pay my bills here – house rent and other things before I leave.
Government information from August 2016 shows that only 23 factories in Ashulia had registered unions. Human Rights Watch documented numerous examples of factory officials thwarting union formation in Ashulia’s factories. Union busting has been an unchecked labor rights risk in global apparel brands’ supply chains in Bangladesh.
One union federation leader said that “participation committees” – employer-worker committees under the Bangladesh Labour Act – had begun to subtly replace factory unions. A few workers from various Ashulia factories said their factory managers did not allow “unions” but allowed workers to vote for representatives to these committees. The Solidarity Center told Human Rights Watch that participation committees either exist only on paper or are dominated by employers and do not represent worker interests.
A union office holder from a factory said: “Our factory union got the registration three months ago. When the owner became aware of this, he terminated 74 workers including the union president…Now I got dismissed along with 150 others, though I had no role in the recent protest.” In another case, workers had attempted to form a union in their factory three times, only to face factory retaliation.
Buy a pack of cigarettes today and chances are you’ll see a prominent warning that the product may be harmful to human health. But many cigarettes should include a second warning too: “This product may be made with child labor.”
Most smokers probably don’t realize that the tobacco in their cigarettes may be tainted by child labor. But as recent Human Rights Watch research shows, this is a particular problem in Indonesia, where kids as young as 8 work in hazardous conditions on small-scale tobacco farms to help support their families. They are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides, and many suffer nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, which can happen when people absorb nicotine through their skin. The tobacco farmed by children is bought up by multinationals like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, as well as big Indonesian firms, who buy either directly from the farmers or through intermediary traders or suppliers. The tobacco then ends up in cigarettes smoked in Indonesia and all over the world.
While most multinationals bar their suppliers from using children to perform the most dangerous tasks on tobacco farms, none of them ban youngsters from all work involving direct contact with tobacco – the only policy that we believe would properly protect children from nicotine exposure. Moreover, when multinationals buy their tobacco from traders on the open market in Indonesia, they do no due diligence to trace the leaf back to the farms where it was grown, so they have no way of knowing whether child labor was involved. This goes against the the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which state that companies should adopt effective measures to identify any abuses present in their supply chains and address them.
But children don’t need to keep getting sick, and change is possible. Investors can push companies in the right direction.
This week, the nonprofit group Facing Finance published its fifth annual Dirty Profits report, which informs investors about human rights abuses in the supply chains of major multinational firms. Investors can use tools like these to raise their concerns with other investors or the company itself, or introduce shareholder resolutions demanding that companies stamp out abuse in their supply chains.
In the next few months, just as tobacco growing gets underway again in Indonesia, multinational tobacco companies will hold their annual shareholder meetings. It’s the perfect time for investors to speak out, and urge companies to do more to end child labor.
(Washington, DC, February 10, 2017) – A move reportedly under consideration by the Trump administration to suspend a rule requiring companies to disclose their source for gold and other potential “conflict minerals” could enrich abusive armed groups in Africa.
Suspension of the rule, known as Dodd-Frank 1502, would undermine positive efforts to eliminate conflict minerals from the supply chain of major companies. The trade in these minerals has enriched abusive armed groups in Congo and neighboring countries, Human Rights Watch said.
“If the Trump administration wants to ‘drain the swamp,’ it makes no sense to undermine companies trying to keep money out of the hands of abusive thugs,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Leading companies have embraced the rule and proven that it works.”
This effort would suspend the implementation of 1502 for two years and may portend an effort to repeal the Dodd-Frank law that underpins it. Suspension would create a competitive disadvantage for responsible companies and benefit others that do not want to disclose their sourcing to deter the trade in conflict minerals, Human Rights Watch said.
The United States would also become a laggard on global efforts to halt the trade in conflict minerals if the rule was suspended. The European Union is considering a similar rule, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a guidance that encourages similar efforts by multinational companies.
The law was passed in 2010 to curtail the trade in conflict minerals. These minerals are globally significant as they are critical for key components in the electronics, jewelry, and aerospace industries.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) finalized the rule that operationalizes 1502 in 2012 and the modified rule went into force in 2014 following a legal challenge. Since its implementation, major companies such as Apple, Intel, and Tiffany & Co have made effective efforts to comply with the rule. Tiffany & Co has urged that the rule be left in place. Other companies have also welcomed the rule and said efforts to ensure their operations are conflict-free are now integral to their operations.
A 2005 Human Rights Watch report, “The Curse of Gold,” documented how local armed groups fighting for the control of gold mines and trading routes in Congo committed war crimes and crimes against humanity using the profits from gold to fund their activities and buy weapons.
In one case, during 18 months of conflict in 2002 and 2003, armed groups fought to control a gold mining town in the Ituri region. As the town changed hands five times, the warlords slaughtered 2,000 civilians, carried out summary executions, raped, tortured, and otherwise abused civilians and arbitrarily detained people they saw as enemies. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes, losing much or all they owned to looting or destruction.
When Uganda occupied northeastern Congo from 1998 to 2003, its soldiers took control of gold-rich areas and coerced gold miners to extract the gold for their benefit. Their irresponsible mining practices led to the collapse of one of the most important mines in the area in 1999, killing 100 people trapped inside and destroying a major livelihood for the residents of the area.
Critics of the regulation, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, claim that the law would cost thousands of companies a total of US$9-$16 billion to implement. However, an independent assessment by Elm Associates submitted to the SEC found that actual costs would be far lower, closer to $800 million, and that those costs were decreasing over time.
“The Trump administration should not get rid of a rule being followed and supported by leading companies,” Ganesan said. “Dodd-Frank 1502 helps to prevent mineral resources from enriching abusive warlords in Congo. It has been a model for similar rules in other countries and it protects American consumers from unknowingly financing horrific human rights abuses.”
Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Draft OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct (“Guidance”). Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental human rights organization that is working in over 90 countries globally. For more than two decades we have documented human rights abuses in the context of global supply chains in agriculture, the garment and footwear industry, mining, construction, and other sectors. We have interviewed thousands of workers, employers, and government officials, and engage regularly with businesses and governments regarding their responsibilities to protect human rights.
The need for a binding international standard on business and human rights
Governments have the primary responsibility to protect human rights, including in the context of global supply chains. To meet this responsibility, they should regulate the business sector both domestically and abroad. We have seen that where states have imposed mandatory due diligence, company transparency and accountability has been improved, but often, States do not sufficiently regulate businesses to meet their human rights obligations.
Many key human rights responsibilities of businesses are already spelled out in a number of non-binding voluntary standards, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles and other voluntary standards provide a clear and widely-accepted model of responsible business practice. But while some companies take their human rights responsibilities seriously, other companies have taken little or no action to implement due diligence measures. As a result, human rights abuses related to the economic activities of businesses remain common, affecting millions of workers around the globe.
The creation of the proposed voluntary guidance would therefore be of limited effectiveness. Human Rights Watch believes that the best way to strengthen human rights due diligence in the context of business operations is to create a new, legally binding international standard to oblige governments to require businesses to conduct human rights due diligence in global supply chains. We understand that the OECD’s goal here is to create a non-binding instrument that spells out recommendations laid down in the (non-binding) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. However, it does have the capacity to adopt legally binding standards as it did with the Anti-Bribery Convention.
- Recommendation: The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises should become a binding standard.
Comments on the content of the draft Guidance
Alignment with existing human rights standards
It is vital that the Guidance recognizes and explicitly names international human rights standards as a foundation and core concept in Part I. While the Guidance mentions several important standards such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions, it should also specifically name core human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other treaties, listed in full by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Guidance includes discussion of proportionality of response to risks and harm, with priority given to severe harm or human rights abuses. However, great care needs to be taken that less severe human rights problems are not simply ignored next to an exclusive focus on the most severe potential harms. In cases where an enterprise is unable or unwilling to take effective steps to prevent, mitigate, or remediate human rights abuses, the Guidance should encourage enterprises to consider halting activities linked to those abuses, or disengaging with suppliers that are linked to the human rights abuse until or unless a viable mitigation strategy is found.
In relation to children’s rights, the Guidance should specifically recognize and build upon the General Comment issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on State obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights.
- Recommendation: The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct should explicitly mention ILO and core human rights standards as its foundation. In its introduction and in Part II-A, the Guidance should explain that any violation or abuse of the rights enshrined in these human rights standards is considered an adverse impact. It should also explicitly recognize the content of the General Comment on child rights in the context of business operations.
Transparency and disclosure
Transparency and disclosure are central to ensuring robust due diligence and effective outcomes. Transparency should be included and emphasized throughout the Guidance, in particular that relevant, accurate, timely, current, and accessible disclosure is necessary at every step of the iterative due diligence process. In addition, transparency around due diligence policies, methodologies, and remediation methods will provide a greater predictability in the process, particularly for affected stakeholders.
Transparency is particularly important with regard to supply chains. Enterprises should disclose the names and locations of the entities along its supply chain, from subsidiaries to subcontracted suppliers or service providers. Business relationships with financial institutions should also be disclosed.
- Recommendation: The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct should make the transparency recommendations more robust by including disclosure throughout the due diligence process and of supply chain business relationships.
The goal of the Guidance is to improve business conduct by implementing the due diligence recommendations of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. While the Guidance encourages companies to track their own due diligence processes, it contains very little information on how States will monitor and measure implementation. This is a major oversight.
Human Rights Watch believes that a formal assessment is needed to measure how States are implementing the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct. Adhering States should report regularly and publicly on (i) what activities they have undertaken to promote and monitor implementation of the Guidance; (ii) the number and overall proportion of companies who are reporting on their due diligence policies and practices in accordance with Part II-D of the Guidance; and (iii) the number of reporting companies that are, in the state’s assessment, undertaking due diligence in accordance with the Guidance. The OECD should set up a monitoring mechanism that assesses progress on the implementation of the Guidance in each State.
- Recommendation: The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct should include a mechanism to monitor implementation.
Accountability and remedy
The Guidance does not go far enough to ensure effective remediation processes where harm was not prevented or only partly mitigated. Enterprises should make an effort to assess the possibility of remediating potential abuses as part of the due diligence process. As part of the “specific response plans” described in Part II-B, enterprises should identify and disclose the methods by which affected parties can raise concerns about future impacts, whether through judicial or non-judicial mechanisms.
The Guidance should also strongly encourage enterprises that are directly linked to human rights abuses, but that are not causing or contributing to that harm, to ensure that just, fair, and effective remedial processes are in place. This is particularly important in the context of supply chains, particularly where enterprises rely on goods and services from companies with risky business practices.
- Recommendation: The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct should include remediation planning and disclosure as part of its due diligence process. Remediation should be strongly encouraged throughout a supply chain, even when an enterprise is only directly linked to harm.
 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in Supply Chains: A Call for a Binding Global Standard on Due Diligence, May 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/05/30/human-rights-supply-chains/call-binding-global-standard-due-diligence.
 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “The Core International Human Rights Instruments and their monitoring bodies,” undated, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CoreInstruments.aspx (accessed February 1, 2017).
 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, II: Commentary on General Policies,” 2011, http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/mne/48004323.pdf (accessed February 6, 2017), pp. 21-22. See also “OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas,” 2016, http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/mne/OECD-Due-Diligence-Guidance-Minerals-Edition3.pdf (accessed February 6, 2017).
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General Comment No. 16 (2013) on State obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights,” CRC/C/GC/16 (2013), http://www.refworld.org/docid/51ef9cd24.html (accessed February 1, 2017).
 Non-judicial grievance mechanisms should also be designed in consultation with stakeholder groups for whom the mechanism is intended. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” 2011, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf (accessed February 6. 2017).