Even though we generally think of armed conflict as the territory of governments, armies, rebel groups and the UN, all too often private companies find themselves in the heat of the battle as well. Operating in countries rich in natural resources and where labor costs are generally much lower than where they are headquartered, businesses are repeatedly drawn to places where they cannot escape the conflict dynamics. And it is exactly those dynamics that pose a pressing moral dilemma. Business can play a powerful role in conflict resolution through employment, economic development and dialogue. However, armed conflict also provides for an environment where complicity and impunity flourish, also, and maybe even especially, for private enterprise.
Colombia is home to one of the most protracted armed conflicts in the world. Paramilitary groups and government forces have been battling each other for control over power, land, and resources since the middle of the 20th century. Amidst all this, Colombia’s riches in natural resources have continued to attract companies to the country. Even though business as usual may elicit numerous accounts of immoral behavior, including land grabbing, air and water pollution, and harsh working conditions, the ongoing conflict offers companies even more opportunities to maximize profits at the expense of local populations.
In northern Colombia, for example, coal mining giants Drummond and Prodeco have been scrutinised over their operational practices. In an industry where profits are measured out in cents, these companies allegedly do everything they can to cut costs. This includes maintaining poor working conditions, robbing employees from their right to association, and silencing those who speak up about the circumstances in the mines. According to a report entitled ‘The Dark Side of Coal’ by the Dutch branch of PAX, violence – including forced displacements, disappearances, selective killings, and massacres – was significantly more wide-spread in the coal-mining regions in northern Colombia than in the rest of the country between 1996 and 2006. However, even after the disarmament of paramilitary troops in this area, which was supposed to have been completed in 2006, the violence continued. Numerous stories were gathered linking the violence to the mining companies, with human rights defenders and trade union representatives particularly targeted. Both Drummond and Prodeco allegedly paid off paramilitary groups to intimidate, injure, or even kill those obstructing the cost-cutting and, with that, human rights violating nature of their operations.
The road to justice is not always straightforward. A legal trial is usually very costly and, thus, won by the party with plenty of resources at their disposal. Unless a class-action suit is backed pro bono by a large firm, the odds are against the local populations whose lives are uprooted by the human rights violations induced by corporate activity. According to peace organization PAX, the Justice and Peace Law has tried a number of paramilitaries in Colombia, but unfortunately has been unable to bring justice to all victims. In addition to such legal avenues, non-judicial remedy is increasingly accepted as a viable and valid instrument of redress. Here, mediation and dialogue are often central to a constructive relationship between company and community, which could contribute to preventing any future conflicts from happening as well as provide for remediation in case human rights violations do occur. Dialogue-based processes, such as a multi-stakeholder panel, can furthermore serve to promote mutual understanding and contribute to the prevention of disputes.
Though the private sector as a whole might strike up a bad reputation due to the actions of a few rotten apples, a positive impact on armed conflict by the business sector is also not a rarity. In the very same country where coal mining companies are exacerbating the fighting, the National Business Association of Colombia (ANDI) is contributing to a solution. With examples of the ANDI supporting dialogue between conflict parties, continuing to provide employment, and promoting morally sound business activities, Tessa Alleblas of The Hague Institute for Global Justice illustrates the important role the private sector can play in the prevention of mass atrocities in particular, but also conflict in general . It is efforts such as these that set an example for the business community, pushing them to contribute to a stability in society that will do good for them in the long run.
Every company operating in a conflict situation has a choice; either it can take advantage of the lawlessness in the country of operation to get away with highly profitable, yet irresponsible business conduct; or it can keep its reputation clean while contributing to a more stable society and possibly even working towards a solution to the conflict. Companies that do not make greed-driven decisions have at their disposal many guidelines to help them, such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights as well as the support of a variety of NGOs and sustainable trade associations. For those business leaders that value their shareholder value more than the lives of their fellow human beings, a more effective system for bringing them to justice, where judicial and non-judicial remedies complement each other, has to be developed. In the meantime, it is up to governments, suppliers, and consumers to further the business case for responsibility and make sure the latter group of companies will experience the consequences of their actions in their receding profits.
Written by Annewil Hooijer and published on 27-March-2015