One hundred and ninety three countries have signed onto the United Nations Charter. Each country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, has promised to uphold every Article of the Charter and has vowed to uphold “peace” and “security” in the world, and solve “international problems” of a “humanitarian nature.” Yet many of these countries have failed to uphold these obligations as they have first and foremost placed the economic importance of their country before mankind.
Home to one of the world’s largest oil refineries, the Petrobras RPBC Oil Refinery, two hydroelectric generating facilities, and a large steel plant, Cubatao, Brazil was once the most polluted city in the world, known more commonly as the “Valley of Death.” The pollution was horrifying, as the 100,000 inhabitants of the city suffered from various terminal diseases – ranging from skin cancer to leukemia – which all resulted from inhaling the toxic fumes in the air. Yet Brazilian authorities continued to reap the economic benefits of Cubatao until the a string of horrifying birth defects – babies born without brains throughout the city – forced them to take action.
Brazil is not alone in the environmental strife it has imposed on its citizens. There are human rights violations occurring on a daily basis because of the economic importance countries place on companies that generate profit for their country. Glencore, a huge Swiss mining corporation, has had numerous international controversies since the founding of its company. Most recently, there have been reports that the sulfur dioxide emissions from the Nkana colbalt plant in Zambia has caused the health problems and loss of crops for around 300,000 locals. These emissions arise from the huge amounts of sulfuric acid that is injected into the ground to extract ore that Glencore later process and sells.
The list of human rights and environmental violations worldwide seems infinite, from the devastating environmental effects in Indonesia to the human rights violations that occur in the East Asian sweatshops owned by huge corporations like Walmart, Burberry, and Disney. How then can we expect these countries and corporation to improve their international relations if they cannot uphold basic rights for people throughout the world?
Unfortunately, judicial systems are reluctant to hold countries accountable for the atrocities companies commit outside of the United States. Indeed, judicial systems are reluctant to hold companies themselves accountable for anything. Only weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court tossed out a case brought by Nigerians against the human violations committed by Royal Dutch Petroleum. In this decision, the Court held that the United States would not be a judicial forum for abuses companies had aided or abetted in foreign countries. This unfortunate decision, which allows the continued abuses by Walmart in Bangladesh is a “win” for corporations which can now continue to focus on their shareholders at the expense of innocent workers who are exposed to dangerous work conditions.
It seems, thus, that an international response is needed to stop the abuses occurring every day. One suggestion would be to create an international treaty that would legally bind countries to an agreement whereby they would have to uphold a minimum level of human rights legislation. However, because international law has long lacked the enforcement hand that domestic legal systems have, another treaty would only add to a plethora of human rights instruments that often carry little weight in the international community.
Another suggestion would be allow existing international organizations to regulate countries and corporations. One such organization would be the World Trade Organization (“WTO”). The WTO already at the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), especially Article XX which allows WTO Members to “=adopt policy measures “necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health.” Even so, this exception is rarely invoked, as trade organizations are more willing to protect the economic interests of countries than to protect the humanitarian aspects of international law.
Thus, it would be best to create an independent enforcement arm of the United Nations that regulates the human rights abuses occurring from economic ventures. Because the 193 countries have signed onto the United Nations Charter, it would be best for this huge international entity to create a mechanism whereby corporations could be held accountable for their egregious human rights violations. It is time, after all, for mankind to take precedence over the economic interest of states.