Remembering Bhopal: The Need for Effective Remedies

April 13, 2024

December 2024 will mark the 40-year anniversary of the catastrophic Bhopal gas leak – one of the worst corporate human rights abuses of the modern era.

In the early hours of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from a pesticide plant on the outskirts of the Indian city of Bhopal. Twenty-seven tons of MIC seeped into the air and spread throughout the city. The results were horrific. It is estimated that within three days of the leak 10,000 people had died. This number is now estimated to be over 22,000 and more than half-a-million people continue to suffer. The site remains a toxic wasteland.

The factory was operated by an Indian subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation, now owned by Dow Chemical. Neither UCC, nor Dow, have provided an adequate remedy to victims of this ongoing tragedy. As Amnesty International reports, “[f]orty years after the gas leak, survivors and their descendants still await just compensation, a thorough clean-up of their environment, adequate medical assistance and treatment, punishment of all perpetrators, and comprehensive economic and social rehabilitation.”

Bhopal remains a depressing example of the inadequacies of the current system in providing justice to those who have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of corporate actors.

While corporate respect for human rights has certainly improved in the 10 years since the introduction of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), access to effective remedies remains sorely overlooked. As the UN Working Group found in a 10-year review of the UNGPs, “[m]any – if not most – of the barriers in accessing both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms identified in the Guiding Principles still largely remain.”

It is therefore both appropriate and timely that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has introduced new guidance on this topic. The new interpretive guide, “Access to Remedy in cases of Business-related Human Rights Abuse”, seeks to provide further explanation and detail on Pillar III of the UNGPs. This Guidance underlines the need for effective grievance mechanisms. It urges companies to remember that ineffective mechanisms will not meet their responsibility under the UNGPs. While being both a waste of valuable time and resources, ineffective mechanisms have the potential to disempower rightsholders and compound their grievances further.

Much still remains to be done and this guidance does not alleviate the pain and struggling of those still suffering at the hands of UCC/Dow. Nonetheless, this guidance does represent an important step in advancing accountability as foreseen by the UNGPs and helps put remediation back on the radar for corporates engaged in human rights due diligence.


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