Human Rights Cases Best Pursued Abroad | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.04.2008
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Human Rights Cases Best Pursued Abroad

When international corporations trample on human rights in developing countries, it's hard to find help. That's why human rights defenders are demanding improvements for getting legal compensation abroad.

A girl carries a pail of water on her head in a shanty town in South Africa

Poverty is one reason people may not stand up for their rights

When international corporations start mining resources in developing countries, both pollution and human rights abuses are frequently the result, according to Michael Windfuhr of the German Protestant Church's social aid organization, Diakonisches Werk. People suffer alongside the environment when the ground is dirtied by oil spills, such as in the Niger Delta, or when ancient-growth forests are in danger of being cleared, as in South America.

And most people generally find it hard to defend themselves, Windfuhr said.

"That often has to do with them having very few resources themselves, often being illiterate, having difficulty documenting their cases, lacking money -- both for lawyers and the trip to the district court -- and lacking knowledge of their own rights."

Two young men carry a sack of mud down to the water to be sieved for diamonds at the Kabuebue mine in the village of Bakua Bowa, near Mbuji-Mayi, Congo, in this May 2, 2001 photo

Diamond prospectors in Congo

It would make little difference if Windfuhr and other human rights activists acted as the victims' lawyers. In many countries, expeditious and fair legal proceedings that can bring about change simply aren't possible because there is no rule of law. Congo is an example, said Windfuhr.

"You don't have a chance if you want to take a case to court there," he said.

That makes it all the more important for victims to be able to stand up for their rights if they're faced with an abusive German logging company or diamond exporter, for example. But that's still far from reality, according to Windfuhr.

"The German government has not been very active so far, but rather, mainly protects the interests of German investors abroad," he said. "That is the government's paramount legal interest."

Taking cases abroad

Though the US Alien Tort Claims Act allows people to sue foreign companies in the United States for human rights violations that occurred abroad, there's still no legal basis for such claims in Germany or the rest of Europe.

Furthermore, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for human rights abuses, with subcontractors from numerous countries often making up the parts of a complex production chain.

Amazon rainforest burning

Years will pass before the displaced can complain to the UN

However, observers are expecting a breakthrough in the United Nation's Human Rights Council. After five years of negotiations, and despite resistance from Britain, Canada and the US, the council members have agreed on a complaints process for the victims of human rights violations. It allows claimants to file a complaint with the United Nations against states. The complaints procedure was previously limited to civil rights issues and the Women's Rights Convention.

But, it will still be some time before the first group of people can bring their human rights claims to the UN. The Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly must first approve the treaty and present it for ratification. And, years can pass before enough states have ratified it for it to come into effect.

Nevertheless, human rights organizations and NGOs in Germany are already expecting it to send a clear message to national courts. Until that happens, though, the only thing to do is carefully document human rights violations -- and make them public.

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