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Why we need a UN binding treaty

SCIAF Policy Officer Sarah Freeman looks at the damaging effects of business and mining and why we need a UN Binding Treaty.

On 25th January, a dam collapsed in Brazil’s Brumadinho municipality. One hundred and forty-two people died and 194 are still missing. The dam was built from waste material from the Córrego do Feijão iron-ore mine, unleashing a torrent of mineral-polluted sludge on the communities living downstream. Ironically, tailings dams such as these were designed to protect the environment; in the past, such waste would have been dumped into rivers.

The mine is partly owned by multinational mining company, Vale. Another of its mining dams collapsed in the Mariana disaster in 2015, killing 19 people and causing devastating environmental damage. The communities of Mariana are still waiting for justice and compensation.

Mining industries such as those in Brazil and Zambia are regulated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a set of voluntary principles designed to prevent human rights abuses. In reality, they have little effect on business practice: a 2018 report by the Responsible Mining Index found that human rights, health and environmental safety remain inadequate across the world. Voluntary guidelines and goodwill are not enough.

The UN is currently negotiating a new mechanism that will hold businesses to account: a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights. The Treaty is still at draft stage and we are yet to see how transformative it will be. It is hoped this could provide the legal obligations necessary to prevent human rights abuses and to secure justice when things go wrong. Businesses such as Vale hide behind a web of subsidiaries making it near impossible to hold them to account. For people living in the poorest countries, seeking justice against big business is unreachable.

The UN Binding Treaty will also offer protection for human rights defenders. SCIAF works closely with human rights defenders along Colombia's River Atrato. Abundant precious metals have led to legal and illegal exploitation, causing conflict and environmental damage. Human rights defenders, fighting to protect land and rights, face violence and death threats. 

Civil society participation in the Treaty has been strong, with over 300 civil society organisations attending the most recent round of negotiations in October last year. SCIAF is working as part of CIDSE, a network of Catholic social justice organisations, to push for stronger regulations. We want to see a world where business is held to account.