Jeremy Symons (Senior Vice President, Conservation and Education Headquarters)

03.10.2010 - Interview conducted by Joel MacMillan

Q1. In many underdeveloped countries, large multinational corporations have a chequered history in terms of respecting local cultures and the environment. Do you think that a more positive relationship between commerce, human rights and ecology is developing and can you see of any examples of this taking place?

I do, and I see a lot of companies that are more interested in sustainability, and there are certainly still many companies who are bad actors and not doing their part. But companies are realizing that at the end of the day, they are going to have to be part of the solution to some of the societal issues. This includes the environment which I work on, and sustainability of their own practices and products, as well as the education and outreach to their employees. So we are seeing some progress, but it is slow compared to the challenges that are out there.

Q2. In June of this year, the President of Guatemala suspended the operations of Marlin Mines, a Canadian company when it discovered that it violated safety and human rights, as well as endangered the health of the indigenous communities surrounding the mine. What type of precedent does a decision like this set, and can we expect to see more of this in the future?

Well this is a global issue, trying to deal with companies that put profit ahead of safety, basic respect for human rights, the environment, or protecting their own employees as well as communities around them. In the United States we have seen some very similar things. We had a mine disaster in West Virginia recently, and the governor of West Virginia moved in and shut down a number of mines that had similar safety violations. The trick is not just to act when the cameras are on after something has happened, it is to keep the focus on making sure that human rights and safety are always respected, and that requires the vigilance of people.

Q3. A lot of western companies set up operations in underdeveloped countries because many are rich with natural resources, but also because they have lax health and safety regulations, and can avoid being subjected to the same labour laws that they would be in a more developed country. How much accountability should be taken by the governments of these underdeveloped countries, and what role can international law play in preventing such occurrences?

State governments and some national governments have a very important role in these functions, more so than international regimes because they are closer to the public. Itís ultimately the public and the employees that are going to have to stand up in whatever governmental system they are in, and seek those changes. Thatís the only way it has ever gotten done in the United States, and what I have seen in other countries. In developing nations people are going to have to ask their local governments to act, and then they will see national results. The international forum is the right place to share success stories and for governments that have had laws that work, as well as companies that have successfully made ways to make a profit while respecting safety as well as human rights-to pass on those stories to developing nations. When developing nations see those success stories, they can start to build at a local and national level. ††

Q4. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created in 1948 there is no mention of the environment. In March of 2008, the UN passed a resolution on human rights and climate change. However, today human rights are being violated as a result of climate change which is arguably man made. Do you think that the declaration should be amended to account for infringements of human rights through environmental violations?

Well Human Rights are a fundamental value that endures throughout time and across many issues. Certainly climate change and the environment is fundamental to both equity issues of human rights with the climate change in the case of people admitting pollution that are causing an impact on poor people in other locations that have actually done little to cause it themselves. Also inter-generational problems exist with us not respecting the world we are going to leave our children and future generations. The environment has to be critically dealt with, and itís important that the human rights and climate change are coming together in that respect. They key is start with action and getting things done on climate change, itís not enough to just talk about the change. †

Q5. What practical steps can be taken so that human rights can be protected in the context of climate change? If the estimates of potentially displaced persons are accurate, that is potentially millions of climate refugees, what potential consequences will this have for human rights, in particular in regard to migration?

There are two things that have to happen on climate change with respect to human rights. The first is, those best able to solve these problems, reduce pollution, and reduce the pace of climate change, need to do everything they can to do it, particularly with the heat trapping pollution that has been pumped into the atmosphere and has caused the climate change. The second thing, and this has been spelled out already in international agreements, like the ĎRio Treatyí, is to care for the most vulnerable - wherever they may be on this planet. That means we are going to have to provide assistance both in the form of bilateral, multinational, and financial assistance to deal with the fact that sea levels are rising, less access to clean water and more droughts. We need to help governments prepare for this, and itís already started. Unfortunately, itís going to get worse before it gets better.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.