Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Eugènia Riera
International Catalan Institute for Peace
Mauricio Lazala

Mauricio Lazala

Mauricio Lazala, lawyer specialising in human rights, has since last year been the Deputy Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, an independent non-governmental organisation that works to encourage companies to respect human rights. We talk to him about the abuses committed by the private sector in conflict areas and also about good business practices, which do exist.

Do private companies forget too much about human rights when operating in conflict areas?
The area of research concerning companies and conflict is relatively new –it's between 10 and 15 years old– and obviously among the 70,000 multinationals around the world, there is a lot of variety. But we can indeed say that many companies forget too much about human rights, even though there are also those that are progressing in this issue.

What are the most common violations?
The most common ones are related to the extraction of natural resources. Here we are talking about mining companies and about their value chains, particularly about the electronics, metal, mining and petrol and oil industry. Why? Because natural resources fund armed groups operating in conflict areas, and in some countries, especially in Africa, they even fund the governments which are committing abuses. And there are also many examples of private military and security companies that have violated the most basic rules of international law and have abused human rights, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are companies like Blackwater which conduct combat activities, but there are also others that have been sued for alleged complicity in tortures (for example in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib), for trafficking of workers (such as KBR, also in Iraq) or for lack of security of their own workers (ArmorGroup in Afghanistan).

Is greater international regulation of the conduct of the private sector in conflict areas necessary?
Without a doubt. One of the reasons it has been difficult to sue these security companies is because they exist and operate in an absolute regulatory gap. For many years they have enjoyed total immunity in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the United States, and it has also been impossible to bring them before international justice, because there is no mechanism to do so. They could basically do whatever they wanted to without having to pay for anything. Now, this last year, the situation has somewhat improved. Iraq has cancelled the immunity and Afghanistan has expelled several foreign security companies.

And in other conflict zones?
One can virtually speak of immunity also, because the rule of law is very weak. For example, in the western area of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is a complete absence of the rule of law and it's very easy for companies to get away with whatever they want.

Are instruments like the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High Risk Areas enough? What benefits can these codes of conduct provide?
This is a good and necessary instrument, but it's not enough, because it doesn't have the force of an obligatory text, it has no legal weight, and it only covers OECD countries and some affiliates. Moreover, in conflict areas, often the problem is not so much that the company directly commits abuses, but rather its complicity with local governments and armed groups. In Colombia, for a lot of years, many companies (like Chiquita, a distributor of bananas, which was already sued) made payments to paramilitary groups and to the FARC guerrilla. This kind of complicity does not have any regulation either.

In this situation, can the private sector be considered responsible for sustaining a conflict?
Yes, even though the responsibility is indirect –through payments, for example–. There is the case of Anvil, a mining company sued in Canada, which, when it operated in the DRC, lent the armed forces vehicles, logistics, helicopters and planes that were used to commit human rights abuses. The sue is directly against Anvil for complicity in the crime.

Is more corporate training required so that the private sector is aware of the role it can play in preventing and resolving conflicts?
Yes, definitely. We've always said that it is in conflict areas where companies have more opportunities to positively contribute to society and to the advancement of human rights. And it should be noted that there are companies who have taken this seriously and are working along these lines.

What examples of good business practices in contributing and promoting peace would you highlight?
In Sri Lanka, companies like Holcim Lanka are providing training and rehabilitation to ex-soldiers, a very important thing in a post-conflict phase. In Colombia, the supermarket Éxito is also working with ex-soldiers and demobilised paramilitaries. We could also talk about Bombardier (in Northern Ireland), Heineken (Rwanda), and ABB and Ericsson (Sudan) as examples of companies involved in conflict resolution.

Do examples like these show that we are working in the right direction?
Yes, I think so. The progress that has been made over the past 10 years is quite considerable in some areas, and we are optimistic that things will continue to move forward. Ten years ago, nobody seriously paid attention to the issue of business and human rights. Nowadays, the United Nations has a working group on this matter, major NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam have specific departments, just like multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the OECD. And at our centre we are also seeing how the business world is becoming aware, given that more and more companies respond to the allegations and complaints of human rights abuses that we send them. Today 75% of companies agree to respond, when 10 years ago not even 10% would have done so.