Mining and energy companies must assume responsibility for the impacts of their activities on the human rights of Colombian victims. A Virtual Speakers Tour along European allies and stakeholders in the coal supply chain, seeks to draw attention to the victims’ plea.
From November 29 until December 7, the ‘bloodcoal’ victims of Cesar (Colombia), united in the Cesar Peasant Assembly, will undertake a virtual tour to bring their situation to the attention of different actors in Europe. They call on mining and energy companies as well as their investors to contribute to remedy for the victims of paramilitary violence in the Cesar mining region. Time is running out, as the energy transition in Europe leads to the gradual withdrawal of energy and other companies from the coal industry, leaving the victims empty-handed. They need to act NOW.
In April 2016, as part of the Stop Bloodcoal! campaign, PAX organized a first European tour for Colombian victims along, among others, energy companies, government entities and parliamentarians. The purpose of this tour was to draw attention to the violence that had occurred in this region, from which coal was mined and used for energy production in Europe.
Mining companies Drummond (USA) and Prodeco-Glencore (Switzerland) operate in an area where paramilitary forces between 1996 and 2006 unleashed violence on the population resulting in, according to official figures, more than 3,100 deaths, around 240 disappeared and more than 55,000 peasants forcibly displaced from their lands. A significant part of this land subsequently passed into the hands of mining companies, which in turn supplied large quantities of coal to European energy companies such as Vattenfall, Uniper and RWE. European homes were heated with this “bloodcoal.”
Maira Méndez, daughter of union leader Candido José Méndez Cochero who was killed in 2002, took part in the 2016 tour. “We were not only able to talk about the human rights violations that were committed and continue to be committed in the mining region, but also show that not only energy companies that buy coal contribute to this, as do consumers who buy energy from companies that use this bloodcoal”.
Five years later, little has changed
Despite the fact that victims of the Colombian conflict traveled through Europe to meet with energy companies, shareholders, parliamentarians and government officials to draw attention to their situation and demand a measure of reparation to rebuild their lives; five years later, little or nothing has changed in their daily lives. Only a small number of families, after a tedious land restitution process, have recovered their land, though mostly only on paper as an actual return is often impossible due to security and other issues; some have received a measure of reparation for the losses suffered. Most of the victims who were displaced, however, continue to live in miserable conditions in the peripheral and impoverished neighborhoods of the provincial cities.
Meanwhile, energy companies in Europe are undergoing an energy transition towards renewable energy sources, and many of them are withdrawing from their business relationships with coal producers. The victims fear that these energy companies will not live up to international standards of Responsible Business Conduct and evade responsibility with respect to the negative human rights impacts of coal mining to which they are linked through their economic relationships. Reason enough for PAX to support the Cesar Peasant Assembly in organizing another tour to exchange with the parties involved. This time it will be a virtua tour, as, due to the pandemic, it is difficult for victims to travel to Europe.
Joris van de Sandt, PAX campaign leader and policy lead for the Latin America programme, argues that “All companies linked with serious human rights violations are obliged to contribute to the remediation of the injustices suffered by the victims, in accordance with international standards of Responsible Business Conduct in force, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Companies. However, the problem with all these standards and guidelines is that they are not legally binding. “
For this reason, through a new European Speakers’ Tour, PAX is trying to encourage energy companies to act and take responsibility. Time is running out. “In several European countries, and also within the European Union, the possibility of converting these guidelines into legislation is being debated, because companies do not comply with them”, adds Van de Sandt. The discussion on binding legislation will most likely not be concluded before European energy companies pull out of Colombian coal. However, even if legislation is not yet in force, energy companies need to take responsibility.
A recently published report on the Cesar bloodcoal case, by the Dutch expert organization SOMO, concluded that when energy companies are aware of being linked to human rights violations and, despite this, continue to buy coal from Colombia without contributing meaningfully and tangibly to remediation of the victims, they themselves start to carry responsibility.
The evaluation of the last five years is not entirely negative. Van de Sandt mentions that “After the European tour of the victims in 2016, the debate on Blood Coal suddenly received a lot of attention. The energy companies internally created working groups and visited mining companies and victims in northern Colombia. They also created structures to audit their suppliers handling of security issues, human rights and working conditions”. However, “no one knows exactly how these audits are carried out because the reports are not made public; if a mining company ‘passes’ the audit, no one knows why and on what criteria. Energy companies in this way are like the butcher who certifies its own meat”, adds Van de Sandt.
For the virtual tour scheduled for the end of November, energy companies, investors (such as pension funds and insurers), parliamentarians and government institutions from several European countries have been contacted. “In Germany, the Greens will soon become part of the government, and in Switzerland, government officials and civil society organizations want to talk with us. We also hope to resume talks with energy companies that use Colombian coal or did so until recently,” says Van de Sandt.
The displaced peasants have two concrete proposals for the mining and energy companies. On the one hand, that companies commit to a formal dialogue that reflects on the role that companies have played in the violent past and explores ways in which companies can contribute to the remediation of victims. And on the other, that the companies create a compensation fund for the victims which can be used, for example, to grant scholarships to children of displaced persons, to set up an agricultural cooperative in affected communities or to finance means of symbolic reparations such as commemorative monuments, among others.
“The companies that use coal from Cesar, which investigations have shown is stained with blood due to the violence in the mining corridor, must contribute to the reparation of the victims; the tour has that intention,” says Ebert García, a member of the Cesar Peasant Assembly.
Additionally, the tour can also serve as a boost for the debate on binding legislation on Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) in European countries. Van de Sandt: “The case of bloodcoal and the evasive ways in which the business community and governments have responded over the years, shows very well why the voluntary guidelines have not worked and that it is urgent that they are anchored in binding legislation, first at the national level, but eventually also at the European level, or internationally with a binding UN declaration on RBC”.