After reviewing the current human rights abuses enacted by the UN in Africa, Rob Idol wonders who speaks for the victims abused by the protectors?
Most of us could be forgiven for not lending thought to many of the atrocious violations of basic human rights that occur on a day to day basis. Our television screens, radio airwaves and social media feeds direct us towards to the most sensational story of the day, and by the sheer volume of such crisis, we compartmentalise, often leaving stories that should get more attention shunted to the bottom of the pile.
The problem with this purely sensationalist approach (in both what we are fed and what we demand) is that the cost of inattention to some of the less publicised stories is significant. These stories often relate to the most impoverished and disadvantaged communities in the world, with those within these communities having little to hope for by way of rescue or salvation. For most of them, their best and sometimes only hope is that sufficient international attention will result in the injustices that are thrust upon them being alleviated. From the child sex trade in Asia to genocide in Darfur, we occasionally come across stories about unfathomable atrocities, experience a brief moment of disgust, then move on to the next click-bait headline. When we ignore their plight, we not only contribute to it, but also encourage it to remain on the back pages.
Which brings me to two articles I saw last week. The world’s largest food producer, Nestlé SA, is no stranger to controversy. The behemoth multinational drew international ire in the 1970s and 1980s for aggressively marketing baby formula to less economically developed countries with a range of destructive consequences. The resulting boycott eventually led to Nestlé agreeing to abide by a new international code of conduct handed down by the UN World Health Assembly – although some argue that they’ve managed to dance around the code ever since.
At the World Water Forum in 2000, Nestlé successfully campaigned to have access to water officially downgraded from a “right” to a “need” with then Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe indicating “access to water should not be a public right.” Nestlé’s motivation for this was simple; they were taking control of local water supplies and bottling them to sell. In 2002, Nestlé demanded that Ethiopia repay US$6 million of debt to the company; this at a time where the nation was struggling with a crippling famine.
The fiasco that they are currently embroiled in marginalises what has come before. Nestlé is accused of using child slaves to harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast. The company is currently the subject of a lawsuit before the US High Court brought about by plaintiffs in Mali (with the support of the International Labour Rights Forum) who allege that the company knowingly provided financial and technical assistance to local farmers to get the cheapest products, farmers who were using and continue to use child slavery.
According to the US Department of Labour, there are 2.12 million child labourers in Ivory Coast and Ghana employed in cocoa production. To throw a little perspective behind that number, it equates to roughly half of the entire population of children under the age of 14 in Australia. Nestlé recently attempted to have the case dismissed, however the US Supreme Court has thankfully overruled this.
This type of exploitation isn’t new, isolated or uncommon. In this enlightened age, we like to think that the days of imperialism are well behind us. The problem is, they aren’t. And what’s worse is that imperialism has evolved into a different beast; no longer nation-states or empires, but corporations. In regions like Ivory Coast, it’s very easy for corporations to engage in exploitative practices. They are an island upon themselves, serving no flag, save for the local democratic structure, which can be circumvented by something they need, but are lacking in, which multinationals have plenty of: money.
The US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the current suit is a welcome one as these types of cases are usually dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. After all, multinationals are the masters of structural strategies designed to avoid legal jurisdiction, whether for tax minimisation or purposes enacted like the above.
Lawsuits can be a very effective tool against corporations. They are designed to apportion blame and penalise them monetarily, which is, after all, the only language that they speak. The aim is to make it too expensive for them not to do the right thing. Lawsuits, however, take a lot of time and money. The result in cases like this quite often is that even when they are successful, the actual victims are no longer around to see any benefit; and the corporation has had enough time to find another loophole to exploit the next generation.
The United Nations, many would think, would be the best placed to combat this unconscionable behaviour on behalf of us all. Their charter, after all, specifically states one of their core purposes to be “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
It appears, however, that the UN themselves are not only failing to achieve this in the region, but are actually contributing to the problem in a far worse way. The UN has been the subject of a number of sexual abuse allegations in recent times, (so much so that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has referred to them as a “cancer in our system,”) the most recent of which alleges that at least four UN peacekeepers in Nairobi have paid girls as young as thirteen for sex.
The United Nations, whilst having the best of intentions, are not interested in individual victims. Their focus is macro; macro in terms of nations and regions as a whole. The problem with this is that it plays into a human social phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” The phenomenon describes the inverse relationship between the number of people present and those willing to help someone in distress. This effect basically suggests that when a group of humans see someone in trouble, they usually ignore it assuming that someone else will assist.
Most of us, myself included, are regularly guilty of this.
We assume that because an organisation like the UN has purported to solve international humanitarian problems, that those problems will be dealt with, at least in a way that is more effective than you or I could as individuals.
They aren’t and they won’t. If they can’t get their own peacekeepers to avoid the temptation of indulging in their own brand of depraved exploitation, how can they possibly compel corporations to not engage in exploitative practices?
It must be pointed out, however, that there are international NGO’s such as UNICEF (and the International Labour Rights Forum in this case) who work tirelessly in both preventing global child abuse and providing emergency relief in areas where it occurs. Their voice, however, isn’t the biggest weapon we have in our global arsenal in the fight against exploitation.
Who speaks for the victims? Well, the answer is us.
In many Western countries, we are struggling more and more with the concept of control. Our Governments want, and get, a greater say in how we live our lives and the problem is only going to get worse. An issue like this, however, is something that we do have control over; not just control, but real power. As a collective, we are the Iron Bank to Nestlé’s King’s Landing; the China to their US Government; the NRA to their Republican Party.
Taking action against the modern brand of imperialism is far easier for us than our predecessors. We don’t need a violent revolution nor do we need to fling our sabo’s into the machinery. Our weapon is the same as theirs, money, and thusly, we have the power as consumers. Corporations like Nestlé serve their shareholders exclusively, with us as the first cog in the wheel. It comes from every chocolate bar we purchase. The cocoa being farmed by child slaves in Africa is used the manufacture said products. If we cut off the supply, then corporations such as Nestlé who exploit will eventually have fall into line or move on.
On the most basic level, we can’t be bystanders. When it comes to the victims, our money is our voice and our weapon, and it has the power to be far louder and more effective than anything else. As for the actions of the UN, I hope you will do what I plan to do now; dig a little deeper into the things I read, and draw my own conclusions.