An international opinion tribunal, which probes and gives judgements relating to human rights violations, has indicted six transnational companies after a four-day public hearing held in Bengaluru this month. The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), pronounced its verdict on December 6 against the six largest agrochemical companies—BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow Chemicals and Dupont—for violating people's social, economic, health and cultural rights in India and elsewhere. The decision came after two years of intense work of gathering and documenting cases.
The six-member jury headed by Upendra Baxi, professor of law at Warwick University in the UK, gave the decision. The tribunal's session from December 3 to 6 was held on the request of the Pesticides Action Network (PAN), an international network of NGOs, which had asked the tribunal in 2008 to investigate how activities of the transnational corporations (TNCs) were causing "massive deaths, terrible harm to health, plunder of the environment and destruction of ecological balance and biodiversity".
During the public hearing, PPT was presented with technical reports and individual testimonies on the themes which had been brought to its attention. These included a range of violations of human rights by the different actors (TNCs, states and international agencies): threat to food sovereignty, health implications because of the failure to control dangerous pesticides, complicity between TNCs, national governments and the scientific community. The tribunal also looked into the violation of rights of women and children and qualified the facts with respect to international law convention, treaties and instruments.
Agrochemicals kill 355,000 people each year
The tribunal studied and held cross examination in cases such as that of Silvino Talavera, a 11-year-old from Paraguay who died in 2003 days after breathing in a cloud of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide sprayed by a crop duster. They also studied the casualty and adverse health impact of the pesticide endosulfan on people of Kasaragod district in Kerala state in India and the Bhopal gas leak tragedy.
Jury members of Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT)
- Upendra Baxi: Scholar and a professor of law in development at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom and has served as vice chancellor in the same university and Indian universities
- Ricarda Steinbrecher: Molecular geneticist and developmental biologist. She serves on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on risk assessment and risk management of genetically modified organisms
- Prof. Ibrahima Ly: Professor with the law faculty of University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal. He is also president of the Senegalese Association for Environmental Law
- Elmar Altvater: German economist and former president of the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Right of Peoples in Rome. He was a University Professor at the Free University Berlin and a guest-professor at several universities in Mexico, Brazil, Canada and the US. His main publications cover the fields of crisis theory, state theory, economic world system and of global ecological constraints and environmental policy.
- Paolo Ramazzotti: Professor of Public Policy at the University of Macerata in Italy. He has coordinated researches on development in the National Park of the Sibillini Mountains in Italy and on patterns of industrial policy and development in Argentina and Italy. He has published several publication dealing with industrial economics, public policy and the social costs of modern capitalism.
- Dr. Gianni Tognoni (PPT Secretariat): Since 1979, Gianni has been the secretary general of the Permanent People’s Tribunal. He is Director of the Consorzio Mario Negri Sud, head of the Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology and Coordinator of the Department of Cardiovascular Research, Istituto Mario Negri in Italy.
The cases showed how agrochemical TNCs have violated the right to health and life of people, by manufacturing and distributing pesticides which are toxic and have irreversible effects on human health and the environment and the horrendous conditions of use, especially in farms and plantations in third world countries where regulations are most lax.
Worldwide, it is estimated that 355,000 people are killed every year because of exposure to pesticides, which means that a thousand men, women, and children die of it every day. The Bhopal tragedy of 1984, instantly killed almost 8,000 people and poisoned over a few hundred thousand who are suffering to this day. The company, the Union Carbide Corporation, subsequently taken over by Dow Chemical, however, managed to escape the full extent of its criminal and civil liability.
The tribunal also heard cases brought by farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous people, fisher people, scientists, consumers, and activists, who are victims and survivors of gross, widespread, and systematic human rights violations by agrochemical TNCs.
Giving the verdict, president of the jury, Baxi said that the evidence presented before the tribunal shows that the six TNCs are responsible for gross, widespread and systematic violations of the right to health and life. “The corporations responsible for their systematic conduct have resulted in violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights and other entitlements. Their systematic acts of corporate governance have caused avoidable catastrophic risks, increasing the prospects of extinction of biodiversity, including species whose continued existence is necessary for reproduction of human life,” said the jury.
The three guilty countries
The jury members said three states—the US, Switzerland and Germany—have failed to comply with their internationally accepted responsibility to promote and protect human rights, especially of vulnerable populations. The three states were found guilty on the grounds that the six corporations are registered and headquartered in their territory and the governments have failed to adequately regulate, monitor and discipline these entities through national laws and policy. The concerned states have unjustifiably promoted a double standard approach, prohibiting the production of hazardous chemicals at home while allowing their own TNCs unrestrained license in other states, especially the global south.
Six corporations indicted: BASF, Bayer, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta. They were found responsible for gross, widespread and systematic violations of the right to health and life. The jury found that their systematic acts of corporate governance had caused avoidable catastrophic risks, increasing the prospects of extinction of biodiversity, including species whose continued existence is necessary for reproduction of human life.
Failure of specialist agencies: The tribunal found that some of the policies, especially those of WHO, FAO and ILO are not fully responsive to the urgency of regulation and redress, as articulated by suffering peoples, and human rights and social movement activist groups and associations. A more proactive role is especially indicated in the field of hazardous agrochemical and agribusiness TNCs. Further, the UNESCO ought to take expeditious and effective steps for protection of academic and scientific freedom of researchers and specialists who raise justifiable alarm over the long term impact of pesticides, herbicides, and other products.
The Tribunal found there were concerns relating to global governance institutions too. It said that the policies of World Trade Organisation (WTO) in relation to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), especially the hard regime of patent protection, is not balanced with any sincere regard for the grave long-term hazards to humans and nature already posed by the activities of agribusiness and agrochemical industries.
It observed that the international financial institutions have yet to develop policies concerning their support for hazardous manufacture, application, or process. “It is not entirely clear to us why a strict regime of human rights conditions is as yet not contemplated in this regard,” the tribunal said.
Recommendations for national governments
The tribunal asked the national governments to prosecute the accused agrochemical companies in terms of criminal liability rather than civil liability. It has also asked governments to take action to restructure international law so as to make the agrochemical corporations accountable for their activity and products and to accept a less heavy burden of proof on the victims and to fully commit to and legislate for the precautionary principle. It also asked national governments to protect scientists, farmers and human rights and environmental defenders from harassment by TNCs. The tribunal urged scientists, lawyers and the regulator fraternity to be fully aware of conflict of interest and respect the information, good or bad, as a public good.