19
AUG
2014

The Nicaragua Canal: The Human Rights Implications

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Credit: BBC News

Credit: BBC News

In recent weeks, media reports have come out of Nicaragua about a Chinese telecom titan, Wang Jing, which with the support of the Nicaraguan government is planning to construct a canal to connect the Caribbean and the Pacific. An ambitious plan by any measure, the initial cost estimate is around US$50 Billion. If constructed, the canal would extend 173 miles across the second poorest country in the region, eclipsing the Panama Canal by more that 120 miles. While dismissed by many familiar with the plan, the developer, with likely financial backing from the government of the People’s Republic of China, could act on his plan to move forward and start construction in December of 2014. While environmental experts have expressed alarm over the impact of such a massive project, much less has been said about the human rights impacts on the many thousands of people in the path of this project though the implications for human rights abuses are significant.

The purpose of this blog is to look at the possible human rights implications of such a massive and disruptive project and suggest an approach for addressing the potential risks.

Since human rights experts do not have the benefit of ex post observations that would readily identify possible human rights problems before the start of a development project, there are certainly a number of potential risks that can be identified, based on the experience from other development projects around the world. Displacement of local populations in the path of the massive project, access to potable water put at risk by the commercial activities as well as the construction itself, the impacts on indigenous people and risk to health conditions of the local population affected by workers coming from outside the region all pose real human rights challenges.

Since 2011, analyzing human rights problems arising from business development has gained greater attention. That year, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were published, establishing voluntary standards for business and government within the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework. Within this framework is the recognition that companies should undertake human rights due diligence as part of their business activities. One approach is to commence a “[h]uman rights impact assessment (HRIA) [which] measures the impact of policies, programmes, projects and interventions on human rights. There are different types of impact – it can be positive when the human rights situation improves as a result of activities and interventions, or it can be negative when the human rights situation worsens.”[1]

The Nicaraguan government has extolled the economic (and by implication human rights) benefits from the project, most notably jobs creation and the general improvement and improvement in per capita gross domestic product. This can certainly be considered a positive human rights impact if all goes as promised. Nicaragua said it had chosen the route so it would avoid areas of great biodiversity, indigenous territories and environmentally protected lands [2] and the government estimates it will lift more than 400,000 people out of general poverty by 2018 with the help of revenues created by the project. [3] But a complete assessment of all of the potential human rights problems arising out of the canal development has not seen the light of day.

If and when the Nicaraguan government releases its anticipated environmental and social impact reports, there will be considerable attention paid to the findings and question arise as to the proper scope of the assessment.

According to James Harrison, a leading academic in the field of human rights impact analysis, a properly undertaken HRIA serves a number of purposes:

First, human rights impact assessment utilises a set of norms and standards that are based on shared values and have been developed over many years and are therefore represent a solid normative foundation on which to base impact assessment. Second, a human rights framework ensures engagement with specific rights, such as freedom of expression that might be ignored in less legally grounded forms of assessment like social impact assessment. Third, the human rights model shifts the focus from aggregate welfare and requires impacts to be disaggregated to specifically focus on the most vulnerable, poor and otherwise disadvantaged whose rights are often the most likely to have been violated. Fourth, human rights represent legal obligations of States, rather than simply aspirations that one hopes to achieve (e.g. better social outcomes).

Harrison goes on to note the value in the HRIA process, to wit: HRIAs provide evidence-based arguments in support of policy debates; they have the potential to impact policy development in relation to a project; they have the potential to prevent human rights violations before they happen if they are undertaken at a point in the policy cycle before decisions are made and before people are affected; and importantly, “they can have an impact on institutional cultures by enabling human rights to be mainstreamed, and; they have the potential to raise awareness about human rights issues in affected communities and more widely in society and increase public debate around the issues raised and the accountability of decision-makers.” [4]

In evaluating the human rights impacts from the canal project, understanding the problem through the lens of rights-holders is key. Numerous studies, along with potential problems, have not been made public for the canal project. In addition, the legality of the award itself, along with measures taken to free up land for the project, are under question. Moreover, property seizures that include the loss of indigenous peoples’ lands and other incursions could at the very least bring additional court challenges, if not outright civil unrest. [5]

While it seems unlikely that a rigorous human rights impact assessment of the Nicaragua Canal project will occur given the sense of urgency that the Nicaraguan government has placed on the project going forward and the less than stellar record of PRC-based companies integrating human rights considerations into their projects in other parts of the world, its high profile footprint will likely present itself as an interesting study in a wide range of human rights issues.


[1] Human Rights Impact Resource Centre, An Introduction to Human Rights Impact Assessment, http://www.humanrightsimpact.org/hria-guide/overview/ [2] BBC News, Nicaragua canal route: Atlantic-Pacific link unveiled, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-28206683. [3] Ibid, 2. [4] James Harrison, Measuring Human Rights: Reflections on the Practice of Human Rights Impact Assessment and Lessons for the Future, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1706742. [5] Global Investing Insights, 3 Big Concerns About the Nicaraguan Canal Plan, http://www.thinkadvisor.com/2014/07/24/3-big-concerns-about-nicaraguan-canal-plan?page=3.