On the night of December 2-3 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India emitted lethal quantities of methyl isocyanate and other chemicals in the worst industrial disaster of the 20th century. Twenty-five thousand died; many more still suffer.
Now, 27 years later, a self-appointed international court has delivered a scathing indictment of the pesticide industry. It found the world’s largest pesticide producers guilty of “gross, widespread and systematic violations of the right to health and life, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as of civil and political rights, and women and children’s rights.”
Such was the verdict of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), an organization founded in 1979 as a successor of sorts to the War Crimes Tribunal that investigated U.S. military actions in Vietnam. Its “verdicts” and recommendations are non-binding.
The tribunal convened in Bangalore, India on December 3, which the advocacy group the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) had declared “No Pesticides Day” in remembrance of the Bhopal disaster. During its four days in session, the PPT heard arguments, presented in story form, that alleged wrongdoing by transnational corporations in communities all over the world.
The “defendants,” tried in absentia, were the “Big 6” agrochemical giants: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer, and BASF (Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001). Blame for the agrochemical industry’s human rights abuses was also assigned to the three nations where the corporations are headquartered—the United States, Switzerland, and Germany. As stated in the PPT’s findings, these countries “failed to comply with their internationally accepted responsibility to promote and protect human rights, especially of vulnerable populations.”
Prior to the event, PAN prepared a document titled “The People’s Call for Justice,” which summarized many of the 25 cases to be presented. A periodic refrain was injustice to indigenous populations, which included these examples:
- In Peru, 50 Quechua schoolchildren were accidentally served breakfast containing methyl parathion manufactured by Bayer AG. The deadly chemical was distributed in plastic bags labeled in Spanish, which the Quechua could not read; 24 of the 50 victims died.
- In New Zealand, the Maori regularly witness dogs, sheep, cows, horses, deer, wild pigs, bats, and native birds being killed by aerially sprayed pesticides.
- The Arctic, home to many Alaska Native populations, has the highest levels of “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs), which are highly stubborn toxic substances that infect the food web or travel great distances through the air or water. POPs accumulate in the seals and whales that make up the Arctic diet and can be passed directly to infants through mothers’ breast milk.
- Genetic modification of crops to fight pests can wreak havoc on biodiversity; the document asserts that the introduction of Monsanto’s Bt corn (corn genetically altered to express the toxin Bt) in Mexico destroyed the “natural heritage” of indigenous farmers.
The PPT’s Draft Findings document concludes with recommendations aimed only at national governments (the “Big 6” themselves being, by implication, too untrustworthy to mention). The recommendations include prosecuting agrochemical companies misdeeds in criminal courts rather than civil ones, lessening the burden of proof on the victims, and cracking down on corporate harassment of farmers and environmentalists.
The tribunal was convened in the wake of a June 2010 Bhopal court verdict in the 23-year criminal trial of Union Carbide, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), and Warren Anderson, who was CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster. The defendants, seven former UCIL employees, were fined less than $2,000 each, the maxiumum allowable by law, and sentenced to two years in jail.
The Indian public considered the decision to be an outrage. “The company fined $11,000 for causing the deaths of more than 20,000 people?” wrote Indra Sinha in the Guardian. “That’s 55 cents a death. What of the quarter of a century of suffering endured by more than 100,000 sick survivors? Eleven cents apiece. As criminal damages go, never has a lower price been set on human life and health.”