Companies have long been able to profit from access to the EU market without being legally liable for environmental and human rights abuses that occur down their supply chains. Has the time finally come for them to be held account if they profit from these abuses?

If it sounds like an easy question, that’s because it is. New polling from YouGov shows that more than 80 percent of citizens from across multiple EU countries want strong laws to hold companies liable for overseas human rights and environmental violations in their supply chains. 

The poll shows overwhelming levels of support across 9 countries with varied electorates - from the Czech Republic and Slovenia; to Spain and the Netherlands.

The survey comes as the Commission prepares to publish proposals for a new EU human rights and environmental due diligence law – due before the end of 2021 – which could apply to the value chains of all companies active in the EU.

Currently, companies operating in the EU are able to make huge profits from their extractive and agribusiness interests around the world, while avoiding legal responsibility when communities are displaced and subject to violence by local police, and the environment is destroyed.

How does this work? Take the example of Srong Prou, an indigenous farmer from Cambodia who says she lost her land when it was taken over by a rubber plantation in 2008. With the land she had left she was able to produce and sell just 10 sacks of rice a year – down from 60-70 before it happened. Around 800 families were affected just like Srong Pou

RS8372_KK Sugar_Cambodia_Global Witness_Andy Ball_2021-13-lpr.jpg
An aerial view of the 1.5 hectares parcels of land that was given to communities as compensation by Thai sugar compny KSL in Chi Khor Loeu commune, Koh Kong Province.

One of the companies responsible for their displacement was the Asian arm of the EU-based agribusiness giant Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin). 

For years, Srong Prou and others in her community have sought to challenge what they claim was a land grab and recover compensation for the land they lost. Likewise, communities in Cameroon and Liberia have been trying for years to seek justice for the harms inflicted on them as a result of what they claim are the activities of the Socfin Group. 

None of these struggles for justice against Luxembourg-headquartered Socfin – which presides over 400,000 hectares of land across Africa and Southeast Asia – have been successful. Socfin has rebutted criticisms made against it, claiming that its aim is further development by ensuring that local communities and workers benefit from its operations. However, it is accepted that Socfin is able to acquire land because of decisions made by local officials in countries where the rule of law is weak. 

More broadly the tactic if you’re a multinational corporation operating in the EU seems to be to conduct your business abroad,  where its often masked behind a network of joint ventures and subsidiary companies. In this way, it’s possible to profit from abusive behaviour – and accumulate vast profits in faraway Europe.

Repression of those who defend their land is all-too-often deadly. Our data shows that 2020 was the most dangerous year on record for land and environmental defenders around the world, with 227 people murdered for defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate.  

Many were standing in the way of corporate-backed mining and agribusiness operations - at least one third of the murders were directly linked to industries like mining and agribusiness. 

Communities affected by this system have been demanding change for years – and there is now unarguable proof that citizens in Europe want the same thing.

This follows the over half a million people who petitioned the EU for a law to hold corporations accountable earlier this year. Coupled with the new survey results, it’s difficult to imagine a law which has more popular support from across an often-fragmented political bloc.

So far the European Commission has been listening, with its proposed law on corporate accountability set to be revealed before the end of 2021. 

However, there’s powerful opposition – corporate lobby groups across all sectors are working to ensure any law would be toothless, and protect companies from real legal accountability. 

This is crucial. The final law needs to make sure than all companies operating in the EU – including financial institutions – conduct thorough human rights and environmental due diligence across their global operations. And when harm is claimed – like in the case of Srong Prou and the farmers in Cambodia – those affected must be able to seek justice in courts in the EU. 

It’s time for lawmakers listen to the public – both in Europe and abroad – who are crying out for big corporations to finally be held accountable.