By now you’ve probably heard about the international Monsanto Tribunal being planned for next fall. The organizers declared that Monsanto’s activities "contribute to climate and biosphere crises and threaten the safety of the planet.” As we honor International Human Rights Day, I hope the tribunal also focuses on the many ways Monsanto continues to violate the rights of communities around the globe — building on previous work to hold corporations accountable for their actions across borders.
In 2011, PAN International organized a human rights tribunal to draw attention to harms imposed by the "Big 6" pesticide corporations: BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta and, of course, Monsanto. People from many continents gathered in India to tell their stories of harm to the tribunal, from loss of crops to illness to death of loved ones. And after days of testimony, the jurists found the pesticide companies to be guilty as charged of violating human rights, including internationally recognized rights to life, livelihood and health.
It was an incredibly powerful event — and there is clearly more work to do to hold these multinational corporations accountable.
Accountability across borders
Most of us in the U.S. aren’t exactly sure what tribunals are, if they’re legit or why they matter. In the international context, tribunals are set up for cases that don’t fit neatly in any one official jurisdiction or set of borders, often related to military issues or human rights concerns. They use agreed-upon standards and precedents to render judgments, which they might not have the actual authority to carry out. But without this special effort and the public pressure it brings, the culprit — a war criminal, a government or a corporation — may continue to operate with impunity.
Monsanto has been feeling the heat, though. While legal cases are notoriously difficult for individuals to win against multinational corporations, it was big news this fall when a French court found Monsanto liable for the damage one of its herbicides caused to the health of a farmer in Lyon. Still, individual lawsuits are unlikely to convince Monsanto, a company worth over $55 billion, to change its ways. I hope that the upcoming tribunal will turn the heat up on a broader scale, building even more pressure for government bodies to hold the corporate behemoth accountable.
There’s also a promising initiative under way at the UN’s Human Rights Council to address the issue of corporate accountability. But measures like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which have unfortunate momentum, intentionally make it even harder for governments to hold Monsanto and the rest of the Big 6 legally responsible for their actions. Finding other venues to spotlight the problematic practices of multi-national corporations (such as continuing to make and promote highly hazardous pesticides known to harm human health) is more important than ever.
As I contemplate the theme of this year's International Human Rights Day — "Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always." — I am reminded that when Monsanto & Co. go after farmers like David Runyon, spend million of dollars to defeat ballot initiatives, and use their power to bend the global food system, our rights and freedoms are at risk. We can and should use every tool at our disposal — including tribunals and international courts — to stop these companies from trampling our rights.
Here's to defending our rights from Big 6 pesticide companies — and making every day Human Rights Day.