Reflections on the Natural Resource Governance, Inequality and Human Rights Seminar

By Maria Victoria Ricciardi

During the fall semester of 2016, as an LLM student attending The University of Texas School of Law, I had the privilege to participate in the Natural Resources, Human Rights and Inequality seminar and colloquium organized by the Rapoport Center. The seminar and colloquium are fundamental components of the Center’s larger project on economic inequality and human rights.

The seminar was structured and organized around examining the different sites of governance over natural resources and the processes of extraction. It posed as critical questions: (1) Who is making decisions regarding natural resources extraction; (2) How these decisions are made; and (3) What are the consequences of such decision-making processes? The seminar brought international and national scholars working on these issues to Texas Law to speak with students and share their ideas. Through the colloquium, these speakers all called on us to reflect about how natural resource extraction governance might create, accentuate or ameliorate forms of unequal distribution.

The seminar provided students with the opportunity to reflect, react and interact with leading professors and thinkers in this field. The discussions challenged the students intellectually, and raised more personal and political questions, including how natural resources extraction conflicts are central to many of our daily consumer decisions.

The colloquium was opened by Professor Sumudu Atapattu, of the University of Wisconsin Law School, who highlighted the devastating effects of climate change on human rights and peoples’ lives and livelihoods. She also detailed current debates on environmental justice, including challenges of North-South burden sharing and accounting for responsibility. The themes Atapattu raised, especially structural power imbalances between countries of the North and the South, between natural resource importing states and natural resource exporting states, as well responsibility for the action of multinational corporations, were themes that were returned to many times throughout the course from different perspectives.

The second speaker, Professor Isabel Feichtner of Goethe Universität, demonstrated the ways in which international investment, trade and monetary regimes operates as a critical sites for the governance of natural resources and their extraction. Feichtner developed a political economy of law that is attentive to the role that law relating to trade, investment, monetary regulations and, particularly, financial institutions, historically and in ongoing ways have often operated to foreclose political debates about natural resource extraction and governance. Her remarks also stressed the important role that lawyers and legal scholars play in creating change in the way that natural resources are exploited, and called on us all to be part of processes of reform for greater democratization and the transformation of structural power imbalances within and between countries.

Another critical site of governance examined by the colloquium was negotiations with local affected communities and processes to seek free, prior and informed consent. Patricia Tobón Yagarí, an Emberá indigenous leader and activist from Colombia, described the challenges that her and other indigenous communities in Colombia face due to the pressure from multinational companies to extract natural resources in their territories. She highlighted the tensions and disconnect between the national capitalist laws governing these processes and the indigenous law and their underlying cosmologies. Tobón raised pertinent questions regarding the role of local communities in the governance of natural resource extractions, including, how local voices should be taken into consideration when deciding to exploit a territory. For example, could or should they have the possibility to veto a national decision? How can we ensure a more equitable distribution of benefits? How can we prevent local harms arising from extraction?

These questions were further addressed in the dialogue between Professor Lucie White of Harvard Law School and Professor William Forbath of Texas Law about their project on oil extraction, revenue management and pro-poor development in Ghana. Their work has involved collaboration with local NGOs, community leaders, human rights advocates, and heterodox economists in order to consider possible paths for the country to take to make best use of the recent discovery of oil fields, and to advocate for progressive legislative frameworks. The oil discovery poses many urgent questions: Is it possible for Ghana to avoid the resources course? Can natural resources extraction actually advance economic and social rights of the general population? If so, under what conditions? Professor White reflected on the role of human rights in the debates around what development trajectories are pursued: Does a human rights framework favor any of the visions? Is it obvious that human rights advocates should defend the idea that natural resource extraction should be used to advance other social rights? In raising these questions, she gestured to the limits of human rights to consider complex economic and development issues, all which are highly contested and political. The Rapoport Center will continue to engage in these debates by participating in a workshop in Accra, Ghana in January 2017 on these themes, and collaborating on a future workshop in May 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa and in late 2017 in South America.

The colloquium concluded with a lecture by Professor Penelope Simons, from the University of Ottawa, who examined corporate social responsibility and corporate home state regulation as critical sites for the governance of natural resource extraction. Specifically, she discussed the violence, including sexual violence, perpetuated by multinational companies and private security contractors on women in affected communities, drawing on examples from operations in Papua New Guinea, Honduras and Guatemala. Professor Simons was critical of the way in which international legal frameworks not only failed to protect women from violence but arguably contributed to enabling corporate impunity. She called for changes in the existing human rights framework of accountability for business and corporations. The lecture explored in detail questions that had been posed throughout the seminar: how corporations can be held accountable for their wrong doings, how the existing legal framework creates the conditions of unequal power that enables abuses, and how this could be changed.

As a whole, the colloquium highlighted both the many sites where decisions are being make pertaining to natural resource governance, and in doing so, also identified numerous sites where human rights advocates, practitioners and scholars could make important interventions to shift power imbalances and to ensure more just and equitable outcomes. The colloquium laid an important foundation for future work by the Rapoport Center on the relationship between human rights, inequality and natural resource governance, as well as equipping a new generation of human rights scholars and advocates to critically address these urgent issues and starting a powerful conversation on campus about extractive economies, rights and distributive justice.

For information on the colloquium, including photos and video, please click here.