Skip to main content

Globalism violates human rights

SEATTLE ? In a city remembered for its anti-World Trade Organization protests and marches ? the 1999 "Battle in Seattle" ? nearly 900 people gathered here April 27 to talk about how globalization is impacting human rights and Indigenous cultures around the world.

"Globalization is not new," said Oronto Douglas, a human rights attorney and director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria. "From West Africa to this so-called new world, the concept and its impact on Native communities are 500 years old. Whether it's the slave trade, mining or oil, our communities are often devastated by extractive industries.

"Corporate-led globalization has led to development and privileges for some and anger, poverty and even starvation for us, the indigenous peoples. And that's why we have to form international alliances to protect our communities."

Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) chose the theme "Reframing Globalization: the Challenge for Human Rights" for this year's annual meeting and used the event to call attention to cases in which defenders of human rights and the environment are being jailed, tortured and murdered.

Speakers from Indigenous communities in the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America and other countries told parallel stories of their struggles to protect their land and people from encroachment by corporations seeking to exploit their natural resources.

At a panel presentation, Douglas said hundreds of people in his country have been killed by security forces working for American oil companies that have clear-cut forests and poisoned rivers in the process of drilling and extraction.

"These corporations have destroyed the fish in our rivers and traditional foods from the forest, and brought us environmental pollution, guns and violence," he said. "We cannot allow this to continue. We must organize our communities to stand up for our basic human right to continue our way of life."

Douglas compared what has happened over several decades in Africa to the struggle that many Indigenous communities in the U.S. are facing to protect their sacred sites, forests and rivers from corporations seeking leases for logging, mining and hydroelectric projects.

"It's the same model they use everywhere ? you can change the name of the country, the people affected and the resource being extracted ? but it's just the same story and it's filled with economic, social and cultural injustices for the people who live off the land."

In Mexico, the story was excessive logging in the village of El Mameyal, where Rodolpho Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia were jailed three years ago on what Amnesty considers trumped up charges after they took a stand against illegal logging in the state of Guerrero.

Montiel, a peasant farmer from the village of El Mameyal, said he could not stand by and watch his community's traditional way of life be destroyed by Boise Cascade, an American company, that was decimating the old-growth forest on which Indigenous people depended for food and cultural practices.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

He organized his community to oppose the logging and was subsequently arrested and tortured by military personnel, then tried on drugs and weapons charges. He and Cabrera were sentenced to six years and eight months in prison.

After reviewing their case, Amnesty International declared them "Prisoners of Conscience" and began an international letter writing and public education campaign, calling on Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, to release him.

In November, after two years and five months of ongoing legal battles and international pressure, Montiel and Cabrera were finally released.

But the effort cost Montiel's attorney, Digna Ochoa, her life. Digna, a former human rights lawyer with the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, was found shot to death in her office in Mexico City with a note threatening other lawyers who worked for the center. Her killers have never been brought to justice, Montiel said.

AIUSA honored Montiel at its opening ceremonies as an "environmental defender" whose courage set an example. Montiel, who also won the 2000 Goldman Environmental Award, said his family is afraid to return to its community for fear of reprisals.

"Corporate globalization is increasingly causing human rights violations and we are witnessing many ongoing struggles to protect the environment and Indigenous people's rights," said Folabi Olagbaju, director of AI's Human Rights and Environment Program.

"Over the next year, we are planning a campaign on Indigenous people's rights in the U.S., Canada, and Central and South America. We hope our voices and support can help make a difference."

Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, said since the passage of NAFTA more than 400,000 jobs were lost in the United States' industrial sector between 1994 and 2000, and more than 760,000 jobs in manufacturing dried up.

"You are a rich country and maybe you think it's okay that the jobs went overseas, but these are jobs that don't pay a living wage to workers in other countries. Economic globalization isn't benefiting us; it's benefiting the corporate bottom line. Companies are convincing Native people to give up their land and then telling them they can better themselves by working in sweatshops."

Jean Freedberg, Amnesty International vice chairman, said it is critical for its members to stand up and speak out about human rights violations occurring as a result of globalization.

"If the rich don't share their wealth and power, the poor can only share their poverty," she said. "Access and control over natural resources for Indigenous people is a basic human right.

"The question for us is how can we defend the economic, social and cultural rights of those on the front line of globalization? And how can we apply international human rights standards to corporate development? That's our challenge."