The Vienna Tribunal on Neo-Liberal Policies and European Transnational Corporations in Latin America and the Caribbean held in May was a small but important step in a long process of reining in the tremendous—and largely unregulated—power of transnational corporations.
The Tribunal’s focus on the activity of EU based global corporations highlighted the increasing role that EU companies play in Latin America. The EU is now the biggest source of foreign investment in the region and the biggest trading partner of the countries of the Southern Cone. Many EU-based global corporations were instrumental in promoting the destructive privatization efforts of the 1990s and early 2000’s.
The Tribunal jury—comprised of eminent politicians, activists, and intellectuals—heard evidence on some 3 dozen European based global corporations doing business in Latin America and the Caribbean presented by representatives of about 50 labor and civil society organization from Europe and Latin America.
The cases were clustered in by sector—such as finance, energy, agriculture--and often involved the same companies doing business in several Latin American countries. This clustering of cases allowed for the emergence of a bottom-up critique of the full impact of global corporations on the economies, politics, and environment of Latin America. It became clear that critical issues facing Latin America—access to clean water, the privatization of resources, changes in the banking system, socially and environmentally destructive agribusinesses—were a result of global corporate agendas and not the consequences of “free market” forces.
The testimony of experts, activists, and ordinary people was often poignant and eloquent. The cases and witnesses heard over two long days may only have scratched the surface of exposing the power global corporations wield but they underlined the need for people-friendly global regulations in the global economy.
Activists are now engaged in follow-up activities: organizing the case materials presented at the Tribunal; solidifying the links between organizations and movements for future cooperation; and making plans for future actions. In the coming weeks and months much of the information presented at the Tribunal will become available on-line. We’ll let you know when it does.
But the Tribunal raises another important question: what use are events like Tribunals? What effect can a body with no legal standing and no power to hold anyone accountable possibly have? Are tribunals just good political theater or can they actually have a real impact? We think they can and here’s why.
Events like the Vienna Tribunal are part of a continuum that leads to international law and rule making. Historically—from the anti-slavery movements of the 19th century to the anti-Apartheid movements of the 20th century—public non-governmental commissions and tribunals have played an important role in shaping discourse and as a result in changing behavior and creating hard law.
“Soft” processes like tribunals and “hard” processes like international laws, rules, and standards are much more related than most people think. In fact, almost all international laws and standards—from the ILO to environmental treaties—are “soft”, since there is no real investigatory or enforcement mechanism except for the power to publicly shame offenders. And the reality is that countries regularly try to ignore international laws and standards when it suits them. But, even so, these laws and standards do have an impact. They define the limits of acceptable behavior and in doing so, hold violators up to international shame in ways that can affect their standing in the world.
Sometimes—as in the recent US Supreme Court decision requiring the Bush administration to adhere to the rules of the Geneva Convention when holding prisoners—international law directly impacts national law.
Tribunals can play an essential role in interpreting, applying, and broadening the scope of international law and the creating the mechanisms to enforce it. Tribunals can shape public discourse, expose egregious exploitation, and raise issues and gather information for further international law. In fact, the process of creating new International law and regulations always begins in this way.
Unfortunately, as we noted above, the problem with international law is in many ways the same as the problem of Tribunals: most international law lacks any effective investigatory or enforcement power. The ILO, for instance, has been passing rules about labor rights and standards since 1919. But the ILO has no ability to enforce compliance with its conventions. In fact, almost any international treaty and you will find signatories that are in regular violation and few global venues to hold violators accountable. They all depend in large measure on their ability to shame and shun violators.
Even so, the basic labor rights out-lined by the ILO, for instance, have become recognized standards in most countries and the basis of a great deal of enforceable national labor law.
Law and standards serve a second function. People organize their struggles around the fight for “rights” for “fairness” for “justice” and for the rule of law. Those that traveled to Vienna to present their cases did so because they wanted a venue to show the justice of their cause and to issue a denuncia against those that would do them harm. The Tribunal process helped them to develop a narrative of their case that can contribute to their own struggles back home, recruit new allies and to the broader global fight for justice.
Law is meaningless without social movements to enforce it. Tribunals are part of building a social movement and framing a discourse to set regulations in the global economy that are in the people’s interest.
It will take action by labor, civil society organizations, and a mobilized global citizenry to give global public opinion of the kind fomented by the Vienna Tribunal—and international law generally—the clout needed to regulate the behavior of global corporations. Such activity is already reflected in the growing number of global corporate campaigns; the negotiation of framework labor agreements; in global public policy fights like the struggle against the big pharmaceutical companies for AIDS drugs for all; in the fights of countries to maintain control their own natural resources against pressures to privatize; in boycotts and actions against the IMF, the World Bank, and other agencies of international capital; in the increasing demands for action on global warming. Such global action needs to be pursued in both the North and the South. The Vienna Tribunal was itself a good example of North-South cooperation—it provided important information and built transnational linkages needed to construct a new legal and regulatory framework for the global economy.
In the future, there will be a new global legal framework. We can already see it emerging in the International Criminal Court, in the EU, and in various national laws such as those against war crimes in countries like Germany that claim “universal jurisdiction”. As globalization proceeds and as global civil society develops and the environmental, political, military, and economic sources of social power become more entwined globally, new laws will be needed and they will be created. We have a choice: we can leave the development of those laws to decision makers aligned with global elites, or we can use processes like the Vienna Tribunal to create a people’s legal and regulatory agenda for a new global framework.