It could never, never, never happen here in Britain. No company would ever be allowed to operate in as negligent a way as Union Carbide did in Bhopal, India. And if there were ever a chemical disaster of a comparable scale here – killing more than 20,000 people – the site would be cleaned up and those affected would be compensated.
But – twenty five years after the massive deadly chemical leak from a pesticide factory run by a subsidiary of US-based Union Carbide, the site is still filthy; children continue to be born with defects; the local water is still polluted; and no one has been brought to justice for the criminal negligence that occurred.
Bhopal is perhaps the most staggering example of how standards of business behaviour are radically different in rich and in developing countries.
Following the disaster Union Carbide pretty much walked away from its responsibilities. Amnesty’s new legal briefing on the case details how Union Carbide’s Chairman, US national Warren Anderson, who was arrested by the Indian authorities four days after the leak, was bailed after intervention from the US embassy and fled the country. He has ignored summons to appear in court to this day.
In 1992 an Indian court attempted to seize Union Carbide’s assets in Bhopal – so the company sold its shares in the local subsidiary and thus escaped Indian jurisdiction. To this day Union Carbide has not named all chemicals that leaked, hampering efforts to treat victims. The site has still not been cleaned up. Disgraceful. Shameful.
The Indian government has been very slow to act to protect those who were injured by the leak. Amnesty is urging the Indian government to sort out compensation for those still waiting, and to set up the promised Commission on Bhopal without delay.
Companies often evade being brought to justice for human rights violations by either saying that a subsidiary is responsible and therefore the Western-based HQ is not at fault, or by claiming the converse – that its operations are subject only to local laws, which it knows are weak and are not being enforced, often because a poor state fears losing the ‘investment’. Union Carbide has done both of these at different times to avoid justice in India or anywhere else.
This demonstrates why we need a truly international legal framework for companies, so that they cannot escape justice when abuses occur because of their actions. Amnesty hopes the work of UN expert John Ruggie will soon bear fruit, and is campaigning in the UK for tougher laws to make businesses respect human rights wherever they operate.
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