By Janine s White: Culture Editor
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
(United Nations, 2019)
This is a worldwide vision that has been adopted by 193 countries. It shows that the world is one nation, with shared beliefs and values, where humans are equal in all forms, wherever they are. Human Rights give the people a power to stand up for themselves, to fight against injustices, to protect their interests and to ensure they have the necessities like shelter, food, clean water and clothing. For some of the world though this is not the case, it is a luxury to have food on the table every night, it is a luxury to have a roof that does not leak. These are the countries that have agreed to take away some of the rights of the population. Albeit this is with the intention of improving the quality of life in the long term. For India this was to aid international investment through export processing zones or EPZs. EPZs give corporations access to exemption from labour and health and safety regulations, which makes the corporations immune from criminal law and sanctions for overworking staff, making sure they are safe and for being responsible should something go wrong. Although the UN has attempted to prevent these zones appearing, it is the local government that is required to act on the crimes against the people exploited. If the government has chosen to relax the rights, then they will not be likely to prosecute themselves.
This invites problems with differing jurisdictions, political systems, diplomatic understandings and the need to maintain a good commercial base. With these legal complexities, justice for criminal immorality becomes too powerful to punish. Unlike lower class criminal offences, the powerful multinational corporations do not have to hide the lawlessness of their activities. In fact, some governments advertise their willingness to deny human rights despite knowing that there is a reason they signed up to them initially.
In 1984, there was a chemical gas leak which killed between seven and ten thousand people within three days. There is an estimated 570000 still suffering, with new patients emerging each day. Thirty-four years after the incident, there is still no agreed accountability for either the devastating effects on human lives or the polluted ground water and soil which continues to ravage the inhabitants of Bhopal, India.
The most seriously affected by the catastrophe were the people living in the slums directly behind the factory; the slums were built there for ease of access to work for the employees of the chemical plant. Despite many health and safety concerns the dwellings were there.
An American company, franchised from a Chinese company, was the major stakeholder for the plant in Bhopal. This plant caused so many deaths due to the results of a multinational corporation ignoring the potential consequences of health safety concerns. By ignoring these concerns, they failed to appreciate the responsibility they had to ensure all humans were treated as brothers, which is stated in Article 1 of UDHR. Was the protection of the Indian workers really of such little importance when comparing to the financial gain for the Americans and the Indian Government? Was it taken for granted that the workers were in extreme poverty and grateful for any work that meant that they could feed their families?
Following the Bhopal atrocity, the government implemented the Bhopal Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985. The power to do this and to become the only legal representative in seeking justice for the people of Bhopal, meant that the government was able to protect their interests and become immune from accountability for the severe breach of human rights despite being an indirect stakeholder of forty percent of the company. As a government with power over its people, it was possible to implement the Bhopal Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985 to silence the fact that other countries had already refused to enable the building of such a plant due to their concerns about the safety of their citizens.
This is merely one example of the dangers of Export Processing Zones. There are many more to choose from like Guiyu, in Guangdong province of southern China which is the global dump for electronics. Children are suffering with twice the amount of lead in their blood, but the workers accept this as something that is necessary for the family’s income so that they may eat. Or the contaminated plastic waste that wealthy countries are shipping out to poorer countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia because the employees are desperate, so health and safety regulations are more relaxed than in the originating countries. These man-made disasters are examples of the power that is held by certain countries, people and businesses.
Thus, allowing them to put the value of some peoples lives over others. Why did the company not build the factory in America? Was it because they identified with the American people and would not wish to cause them harm? Was it because they would not have got away with the health and safety issues? Businesses and governments need to consider their moral obligations and reflect clearly on why they are placing their businesses in other countries. Why they are keeping it at arm’s length? Why is accountability not being agreed at the beginning of a financial opportunity instead of when a disaster occurs?