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Justice delayed and denied in India

Earlier this month, an Indian court found employees of Union Carbide India Limited guilty of negligence. The chemical company's Indian executives and former employees had been charged for their connection with the Bhopal Gas disaster that occurred more than 25 years ago.

The seven former employees who were convicted have been given a two-year jail term and fined $2,000. Indian and international activists campaigning for justice have deplored the ruling as “too little, too late.”

The original charge of culpable homicide was reduced to death by negligence by the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. India’s central bureau of investigation had originally implicated a total of 12 defendants, including Warren Anderson, the former head of the U.S.-based parent company Union Carbide Corporation. Anderson currently has a warrant issued for his arrest in India and is considered a fugitive of justice in the country. The United States denied a request made in 2004 to extradite him to face trial in India.

The Bhopal disaster, the most severe industrial catastrophe to date, occurred during the early hours of December 3, 1984.  A massive leak of toxic gases occurred as a result of a broken storage tank from a pesticide plant near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The facility was owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which was later taken over by the American multinational Dow Chemical Company.  

The failure to do anything to bring Union Carbide Corporation and Warren Anderson to India to face trial indicates that India is more responsive to the instructions of the US Government than to notions of justice and fair play towards its citizens.

-The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal's response to the June 7 verdict in a letter directed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Often described as “the night of terror,” the incident took place while most of the residents of Bhopal were asleep. The death cloud, consisting of the highly lethal toxin methyl isocyanate, killed around 7,000 instantaneously and resulted in 15,000 related deaths in its aftermath.  Many of those affected were living in shanty towns located near the factory.    

According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International, the side effects of the chemical leak continue to afflict an estimated 100,000 residents in the area, several of whom suffer from many chronic illnesses and physical incapacitation.  The hazardous waste also contaminated groundwater in the area, causing detrimental consequences on the environment as well as on those who rely on the water for drinking supplies for years to come.

The rulings on June 7 have disappointed many of the victims, who—a quarter-century since the tragedy—continue to seek justice, accountability of all those responsible and full redress, including compensation, rehabilitation and adequate access to healthcare services. Veerappa Moily, Cabinet Minister of Law and Justice for the Govnerment of India, told the Financial Times that “delay in justice is like denial of justice. It is unfortunate that it took so long.”

Union Carbide had agreed to pay US$470 million to the Indian government in 1989 in an out of court settlement of civil claims brought against the company. Survivors, however, claim that they have either never received compensation or have only received payments of minimal amounts. Efforts to hold the corporations involved in both India and the United States accountable have been complicated by the takeover of UCC in 2001 by Dow Chemical Company, which has repeatedly wiped its hands clean by making public claims that it bears no responsibility in the 1984 disaster.

The basic human rights of the Bhopal victims are articulated in several key human rights documents that India has pledged commitment to and ratified, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in many articles of the Indian Constitution. The crucial importance of economic and social rights is fundamental in particular for the survivors, who continue to be detrimentally affected by the disaster’s harmful consequences and have been deprived of the right to health, the right to water and the right to an adequate standard of living.

"The tragedy was caused by the synergy of the very worst of American and Indian cultures. An American corporation cynically used a third world country to escape from the increasingly strict safety standards imposed at home."

-95-page verdict of Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Decision in the case of Madyah Pradesh v Warren Anderson et al.

More broadly, the legacy of the Bhopal incident and the disappointment of its subsequent rulings raise several ethical implications of the role of businesses and economic, social and cultural rights. The case dramatically highlights the challenges of holding multinational corporations to account for economic and social rights impacts of their operations, and of ensuring appropriate regulation by governments in both the home and host states to mitigate risk and abide by an adequate safety code. The United States’ unwillingness to hold UCC and Dow Chemical Company more responsible for their actions implies a double standard in the enforcement of human rights and lack of prioritization given to economic and social rights.

For more information on CESR’s work on India, our 2008 fact sheet examines the country's economic and social rights. It was prepared on the occasion of the consideration by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the report submitted by India on its compliance, as a State Party, with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) for the Committee´s 40th session.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski on June 24th, 2010