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New tool helps communities focus on human rights

By Chris Hufstader
The city of La Oroya, in Peru's Junin province, is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

It’s one of the great debates of the current age of globalization: Can business investments in poor communities bring opportunities and prosperity? Or do they bring environmental destruction and human rights violations? And what is the best way to assess and document the effects?

The Canadian organization Rights and Democracy has developed an assessment tool that communities can use to answer these questions for themselves. The system is called the “Getting it Right” Human Rights Impact Assessment tool, and is designed so that local organizations and citizens can, with minimal training, carry out their own study of how their basic rights -- such as free speech, water, safe working conditions, shelter, and education -- are affected by the actions of governments and companies establishing mines, agricultural operations, factories, or oil and gas pipelines.

“A lot of companies will do an impact assessment on their operations, using an outside consultant, but these don’t always do much for the stakeholders in the community, or promote accountability,” says Chris Jochnick, director of Oxfam America’s private sector program. “Helping community members conduct their own human rights assessment strengthens their capacity to examine their situation, frame their issues, and engage with a company or government,” he says. “We think this will produce a more robust and balanced assessment than one done by outsiders.”

The Rights and Democracy assessment tool helps people document how their rights are supposed to be protected under national law, and the actual effects of an investment project on these rights. It helps community leaders create a team, plan out the work and specific rights to assess, carry out surveys and community consultations, validate findings, write reports, and meet with companies and governments to urge action to address the problems uncovered in the assessment.

A tested tool

Rights and Democracy commissioned five assessments to test the system starting in 2005. One of them looked at the effects of a metal refinery on women’s rights in La Oroya, Peru, concentrating on the rights to water, health, adequate housing, and working conditions. It was done by the Centro de Promoción y Estudios de la Mujer Andina. The organization concluded that lack of enforcement of environmental rules by the state was one of the main contributors to the poor public health situation in the city. The report also cites lack of commitment by the Doe Run Peru SRL company to improve the environmental performance of the plant.

“By looking at the health problems in La Oroya through a woman’s eyes, this assessment helped uncover a pattern of children’s and reproductive health issues that was clearly connected to lead poisoning,” says Gabrielle Watson, Oxfam America’s planning and learning specialist who helped develop the assessment tool with Rights and Development.

Oxfam America is helping two organizations carry out a Human Rights Impact Assessment. One is related to a proposed natural gas operation in Bolivia where the Centro de Estudios Aplicados a los Derechos Economicos, Sociales y Culturales (CEADESC) will carry out the study with local Guaraní indigenous communities that were denied their right to be consulted about the gas exploration activities in their territory. The other case concerns tobacco pickers in the United States, and will be carried out by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). FLOC will look at efforts by migrant and undocumented farmworkers to improve working conditions on tobacco farms.

Watson says the human rights assessments will help people take control of the type of development carried out in their name. “Local people are the experts about human rights impacts of private investment projects in their communities. This tool puts them in the driver’s seat in the search for safer, more equitable outcomes that are good for everyone.”