everybody’s business

Ahead of the Social Change Initiative’s event at Imagine!, Jeannie McCann writes about meeting an indigenous community who peacefully resisted corporate power and how our taxes can be used as a force for good in the world.

We walked along a narrow dirt path towards the Gualcarque River. On the surrounding communal land, families had planted corn and beans, just like their ancestors did.

This was Río Blanco, an indigenous community in Honduras. I was walking with a local woman, Rosalina Dominguez. She told me that the Lenca people consider the river to be sacred. “Our river is our very life,” she said.

I visited the area when I worked for Trócaire to learn about the community’s peaceful resistance to a hydroelectric dam which was to be built without their consent. Trócaire’s partner, COPINH, was supporting the community.

Once built, the dam would change the river’s flow and leave it dry where the community accessed it. Despite the threat to their way of life and the environment, the first the community knew about the dam was when large trucks arrived.

A heavy price

Eventually the community managed to halt the dam’s construction – but at a very heavy price. They faced years of attacks, intimidation and even the murder of community members. Rosalina and her sons received many threats.

The dam was being financed by European investors, including with some public funds. The investors eventually pulled out after the murder of a high-profile community member.

The experience of Rosalina and her community is not unique. According to Global Witness, 200 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2021 – that’s almost four people every week.

Social movements, which are led from the Global South, are calling for stronger corporate regulation to enable access to justice and remedy for victims, like Rosalina. This regulation should make it mandatory for companies to assess and address the impact on people in their operations and supply chains. The aim is to prevent the abuses from happening in the first place.

During climate and energy crises, Rosalina’s experience is more relevant than ever to all of us. Last year, I was awarded a Social Change Initiative Fellowship to research how we can act locally on this global issue. I’ll be speaking about this at the Imagine! Festival next week.

In NI, many of the items that we use in our everyday lives could be tainted by human rights abuses. For example, sweat shops, child labour, poor working conditions, land grabs, pollution or toxic waste. Our peaceful, shared and sustainable future requires us to consider global as well as local challenges.

Potential to create change

During the Fellowship, I learned that the spending power of Government has the potential to create change by ensuring companies operate ethically and sustainability when doing business on its behalf anywhere in the world.

In NI, Government spends more than £3 billion every year on construction, services and supplies contracts. This could include building hospitals and roads, IT and catering services or the supply of food and uniforms.

In November 2021, the NI Executive issued a policy which made it mandatory for Departments to incorporate human rights considerations into public contracts. For the first time, this is NI Executive policy rather than guidance.

As part of this year’s Imagine! Festival, on 21st March, we’ll be discussing how we can prevent human rights abuses from entering Stormont’s supply chains and ensure our taxes are a force for good in the world.

Dr. David Russell from the NI Human Rights Commission will speak about the NI Executive’s policy on Human Rights in Public Procurement. Richard Black from the Department of Justice will discuss Modern Slavery requirements in a devolved context and Donna Williams from the Department of Finance will outline how all of this is operationalised in the public procurement process.

We will also hear from Dr. Peter Pawlicki from Electronics Watch, an NGO that works in several countries to support public sector organisations with responsible public procurement. Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty NI will host the discussion and there will be plenty of time for questions and answers too.

Everybody is welcome to join us in-person at the Accidental Theatre or online on Tuesday 21st March at 1pm. Register now.

We’ll be in touch.