The UK should dance to the African tune on business and human rights

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May spent the last three days visiting three African countries—South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya—in a bid to boost Britain’s trade relationship with them post-Brexit. In a speech in Cape Town, the Prime Minister declared that she ‘… believes both in … nations and businesses acting in line with well-established rules and principles of conduct …’

However, a 2015 report by Traidcraft concluded that UK-linked companies (including 16 FTSE 100 companies) were responsible for 18  cases of serious human and environmental rights abuses across Africa.

In 2016 a report by War on Want titled ‘The New Colonialism – Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources ’  states that ‘101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) — most of them British — have mining operations in 37 sub-Saharan African countries’ and some have been accused of human and environmental rights abuses as well as not paying taxes in the countries they operate in. For example, 1800 Zambians are suing Vendata, a company linked to the UK for causing environmental damage to their village. This case is due to be heard by the UK Supreme Court.

A database that monitors human rights abuses by companies, Business and Human Rights website, indicates seven live cases of serious human rights and environmental damage allegedly perpetrated with the complicity of UK companies. In South Africa, the first country visited by the Prime Minister, Cape a mining company linked to the UK was sued by over 7500 South Africans for asbestos related diseases brought about by the company’s mining and milling of asbestos.

In Nigeria, a case brought before the UK High Court on behalf of 42,500 Nigerians alleges that Royal Dutch Shell plc, a UK company,  was complicit in the oil pollution of the Niger Delta. In Kenya, Unilever another UK-domiciled company, is accused of allegedly failing to protect minority ethnic workers at its tea plantations from ethnic violence. According to the allegations, hundreds of people belonging to an ethnic tribe who worked at a tea plantation run by Unilever were attacked and some killed in violent attacks in 2007 which could have been prevented.

Given the above examples, it is imperative that African governments insist that UK companies comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to further the welfare of the local populations they operate in.

More importantly, African governments should also ensure that the British government legislates to remove some of the hurdles that work against African populations accessing justice in UK courts in the event of alleged breaches by UK companies. The biggest hurdle is the requirement for claimants to prove that a UK parent company exercised control over an African subsidiary. This onerous requirement should be replaced by a law requiring to prove simply that a UK company accused of human rights breaches benefited financially from an African subsidiary that carried out the alleged breaches.

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