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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November, 2004, 11:17 GMT
Calling time on corporate accountability
Alessandra Masci
Amnesty International

Twenty years after the world's worst industrial accident at Bhopal in northern central India, Amnesty International says no one has been held to account.

A doctor treating a man affected by the gas leak
Many of those who survived are still feeling the effects 20 years later
In today's report, Clouds of Injustice, it calls for the development of international human rights standards for businesses.

Given the sheer scale of the tragedy in Bhopal, you might have expected that the world would learn from this but sadly not.

The surrounding communities scrape a living each day, battling ill health and ongoing pollution.

Although the chemical industry has launched a voluntary code in response to Bhopal, the so-called 'Responsible Care', accidents have continued to occur.

Obstacles to justice

Two boys collect water from a contaminated well at Sunder Nagar, a colony in Bhopal. Copyright Rachna Dhingra
It is sometimes cheaper for large corporations to pay fines or damages than to invest... to prevent accidents

The Bhopal tragedy and many other cases teach us that holding transnational corporations accountable at a national level can be fraught with difficulties.

Litigation is expensive and often takes a long time. Large corporations have far greater resources than individual litigants. Individuals often need urgent remedy, especially if they are from poor and vulnerable groups.

It is sometimes cheaper for large corporations to pay fines or damages than to invest in management or structural changes to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.

Economic fears

Governments, courts and individuals are sometimes unwilling or unable to hold companies operating in their countries to account.

There is the fear that strict control over businesses may drive away foreign investors. Many victims fear reprisal and social stigma. Employees may be scared of losing their jobs.

And the complex structure of multinationals creates real problems for local courts trying to exercise jurisdiction over the entire corporation.

Global standards

This situation calls for global norms and procedures for companies.

places primary responsibility on governments
lists human rights obligations of companies
provides international benchmark

A universal framework should set minimum standards across national borders that would be respected wherever a company operates.

It should give victims a voice even when national systems fail and governments prefer to protect investors' interests over the rights of their own citizens.

The UN Human Rights Norms for Business is the most comprehensive attempt to establish such global standards and should be the basis for this framework.

The Norms charge governments with the primary obligations for the promotion and protection of human rights and set out in a single, succinct statement, a comprehensive list of the human rights responsibilities of companies.

They set an international framework that business can measure itself against and a global benchmark to measure national legislation and check whether governments are living up to their obligations.

Regrettably, some governments and business organizations are opposing these developments and trying to undermine their importance.

Five survivors of the toxic chemical accident in Bhopal
The story of five extraordinary people in One Night in Bhopal
Wed 1 December, 2004
BBC One, 2100 GMT
US Judge Dodge stated in a case involving Dow chemicals that corporate accountability cannot be achieved if: "the United States allows its corporations to adhere to double standards when operating abroad and subsequently refuses to hold them accountable".

Amnesty appeal

Amnesty believes governments have primary responsibility to ensure that companies respect human rights. And the companies themselves have an inalienable responsibility not to violate human rights in their operations. For these reasons Amnesty International is:

  • urging people around the world to put pressure on Dow and the Indian Government to ensure that the Bhopal site is cleaned up and affected communities are compensated.
  • calling on the Indian Government to promptly assess the damage to health and the environment caused by the leak and the contamination
  • recommending the implementation of an enforceable global human rights framework for business, based on the UN Norms.

Amnesty International's report on Bhopal, "Clouds of Injustice: Bhopal disaster 20 years on" is available at their website:

World 'failed' Bhopal gas victims
29 Nov 04 |  South Asia

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