The Extreme Energy Initiative at the Human Rights Consortium

The past year has been an extraordinarily busy one for the Human Rights Consortium.  We have launched and developed new research projects; continued to hold events and workshops; published academic volumes on human rights topics; built a new website for the Extreme Energy Initiative; and applied for funding for a teaching program for our Ecocide Project.


Former and current MA and PhD students at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies will know that the core teaching team – Drs David Cantor, Corinne Lennox and Damien Short – are dedicated to their specific research interests.

Last summer, I was hired (fresh off the MA course) to be the Human Rights Project Officer for the Consortium’s new projects.  As well as starting the Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth – first issue coming soon in May! – I was tasked with building a research and communications website for the Extreme Energy Initiative (EEI).  You can see our new website here:

The Extreme Energy Initiative was set up by the new Director of the Human Rights Consortium (and lecturer of the MA’s Understanding Human Rights module), Dr Damien Short.  Damien is a genocide scholar and a dedicated environmentalist.

The Extreme Energy Initiative is a unique academic forum that concentrates specifically on the effects of unconventional fossil fuel extraction on society and the environment.  By ‘unconventional fossil fuel extraction’ we mean tar sands open-cast mining (pictured here in Alberta, Canada), shale gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, coal seam gas extraction (popular in Australia), mountaintop removal and deepwater drilling (the type which turned disastrous for the Gulf of Mexico in 2010).  Biofuel farming also fits into the ‘extreme’ category as it belies our desperation for fuel – even at the expense of land to grow food.  Many indigenous peoples, for example, have lost out due to ‘land grabbing’ from biofuel companies, and this trend is only set to get worse.

Extreme energy is a complex concept, well summarised by one of our collaborators:

Extreme Energy is the process whereby energy extraction methods grow more intense over time, as easier to extract resources are depleted. The process is driven by unsustainable energy consumption and is important because extraction effort is strongly correlated with damage to both society and the environment. 


Extraction site

The initiative focuses particularly on this ‘damage to society’ – which human rights students will understand as violations of universal human rights.  It looks at the role of extreme energy production in driving violations of rights to land, water, food, health, life, indigenous peoples’ rights and freedom of assembly and expression.

The best part of working on the Extreme Energy Initiative is that it is clearly a timely project!  Even in the first months of 2013 the relevance of the EEI to current trends in energy policy has been clear.

In the UK, ‘fracking’ is now being given the go-ahead within George Osborne’s budget, with the usual glut of subsidies and tax breaks (which arguably we can ill afford to provide to such destructive corporations).  Those of us researching the impacts of extreme energy can see this is not a prudent move for a number of reasons:

Luckily, communities and individuals are fighting back against corporations that believe they can use gagging orders and corporate secrecy acts to withhold the names of chemicals they are pumping into the water table, for example; or indeed against governments who grant drilling licences now and ask questions later.

We would like to think that in creating this research and communications hub on the impacts of these processes on human rights specifically, that we are contributing to a growing movement where people from all over the world declare ‘enough is enough!’ to unconventional fossil fuel extraction which violates the human right to a healthy environment.

Helle Abelvik-Lawson



London Mining Network Event: Stories of Resistance

Next Monday evening will be spent in the Amnesty International UK offices at the upcoming event ‘Stories of Resistance’, being held by the London Mining Network. As described on the flyer, it will be an opportunity to hear community representatives, from around the globe, describe their experiences of dealing with the negative social and environmental impact of large-scale mining projects.

This is particularly poignant following announcement last week by the Guatemalan Minister of Energy and Mines that the licence for the Escobal mine was approved. The Escobal mine is jointly owed by Canadian companies Tahoe Resources and Goldcorp. It is located in the San Rafael Las Flores Municipality. Guatemala Human Rights Commission USA (GHRCUSA) reported that 99% of people voted against the project in a recent community referendum. The right to free, prior and informed consent is not the only right being violated.

Four indigenous Xinca leaders, including the President of the Xinca Indigenous Parliament, were kidnapped less than a month ago, on March 17th. Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, one of the other three leaders was found murdered the next day. Noone has been arrested for these crimes.

Local opposition to international investment opportunities is resulting in, what is becoming, systematic violence against peaceful resistance.  The UN-funded International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was set up to tackle this culture of impunity in Guatemala, strengthen the rule of law in this transitional democracy and investigate the crimes of private security forces. CICIG has made progress and crime rates have fallen. However, communities resisting international mining companies and their almost inevitably destructive impact are clearly still vulnerable. Guatemala is just one example of many.

Come and find out more about the impact of mining projects from around the world this Monday 15th April. See flyer below for details. 


How Much Are You Worth?

Yusef Hamied, the founder and retired CEO of Indian pharmaceutical company, Cipla, was once asked if he had an ulterior motive for giving away AIDS medicine for free. He replied “Yes, I do…I want to do some good before I die”. Hamied’s battle against large pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s in an attempt to provide low-cost, life-saving medicine has been brought to light in Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary, Fire in The Blood. It is a battle to protect the basic human rights of so many, a battle which is far from over.


Yusef Hamied

The Case

As the Indian Supreme Court handed down their verdict on April 1st 2013 for the India v. Novartis case, the question of whether a company’s profits should be prioritised over a person’s health again rears its head.

Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis, were not successful. They argued for India to change its patent laws, so as to protect their oncology drug, Glivec. Public health laws in India prioritise the human right to health by allowing Indian pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs like these at a lower cost. Novartis sold Glivec for $2600 a month, per person. This is a huge leap from the generic version being produced in India, sold for $200! The Novartis verdict is a promising development in the campaign for corporate accountability but problems persist.

The Problem

The right to life and to the ‘highest attainable standard of health’ are enshrined not only in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also in the legally binding treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most countries have ratified. How then, did a company manage to argue in court that their profits should trump the human rights of so many?

There is an obvious gap between the theoretical rights that are codified in these legal instruments, and the practical protection and promotion of human rights. One reason for this implementation gap is the economic and political power of transnational corporations, like Novartis.

How did it come to this? Why are tens of millions of people dying from lack of access to medicine purely because they can’t afford it? Putting a high price on lifesaving medicine is asking people to question the worth of their lives or the lives of their family members.

Selling someone back their health and the possibility to live a longer, more dignified life is wrong on so many levels. Companies like Novartis argue that patenting laws protect new medical discoveries, promote innovation and prevent the manufacture and sale of bad quality medicine.

Yusef Hamied refutes this. He argues that because 90% of revenue comes from the global North, sales of low cost medicine in the global South do not affect research and development. Companies are not creating new, innovative drugs. Instead, many pharmaceutical companies are guilty of “evergreening” patents. In the field of pharmaceuticals this involves slightly altering a drug before the patent expires, prolonging the monopoly over it. The impact of evergreening is a direct prioritisation of profit over health and runs contrary to the 2010 Doha Declaration on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and Public Health. The Doha Declarations states that patent rules should be interpreted with the protection of public health at the forefront.

The argument that patents promote innovation is a tired one. It also becomes weaker when one considers the human rights implications.

The documentary, Fire in the Blood, showing at the Sundance Film Festival next month, further disputes this line of reasoning. The film explores the effects of medicine prices for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Africa. It demonstrated the positive effects of one good practice company, Cipla. Based in India, the “pharmacy of the developing world”, Cipla put their money where their mouth was and sold antiretroviral medicine at cost price, a practical demonstration of their “Caring for Life” mantra. Their bold move made a clear point to the profit-driven pharmaceutical companies who were monopolising the drug market; the right to health should come first.

In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, more commonly known as the Ruggie Principles. The voluntary principles acknowledge the responsibilities of corporations to respect human rights, the environment and labour rights by setting basic standards. Over 7000 businesses have signed up in 145 countries. They are a positive step forward but there is still much to be done.

There are a number of inadequacies to be considered. Critics claim that adoption of the principles is merely an opportunity for “blue washing”- a derogatory reference to the reputational benefits of partnering with the UN. The reliance on self-evaluation is another problem. Novartis’ most recent Communication of Progress report prescribes just four pages to evaluate their human rights impact. In the review regarding their lack of complicity in human rights abuses, Novartis focused on labour rights but failed to mention their complicity in the violation of the right to health with high pricing of medicine.

What Needs to Change

For the Ruggie Principles to be effective in protecting human rights, the corporate structure needs to be modified. Legal obligations to maximise profit for company stakeholders results in human rights falling by the wayside. A study carried out by the International AIDS Society endorses the implementation of a Medicine Patent Pool which would make patent licences temporarily available to allow others to produce low-cost generic drugs for sale in developing countries. The Pool is funded by the organisation, UNITAID, which is seeking innovative ways for markets to operate effectively and in the interest of public health. The Pool is an interesting and useful mechanism but does not address the fact that companies are not legally bound to respect human rights.

Companies must recognise their responsibility. They should be legally required to adopt the Ruggie Principles, and governments must put mechanisms in place to monitor their implementation. Governments are primarily responsible and must prioritise the health and lives of people and fulfil their treaty obligations.

The last twenty years have shown the value of political activism and the potential for change. The international community must continue to demand accountability from companies who have a social responsibility. The Novartis verdict has shown that this is possible.

What You Can Do

Cipla’s actions showed the value of doing genuine good. We must aspire to one day live in a world where the health and lives of people are put before the profits of a company. You can be a part of this!


Protesting against Novartis

The intrinsic relationship between business and human rights is being realised globally. Global networks and initiatives are pioneering research on the subject.  International NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Peace Brigades International are joining the campaign for greater accountability of companies. HRW dedicated a  large section of its 2013 World Report to the issue, calling for improved government monitoring of corporate actions; Senior Researcher, Christopher Albin-Lackey criticised the regulation vacuum and its impact on human rights worldwide, saying governments had “failed to keep pace”.

Focused on the right to health, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are leading an access to medicine campaign against companies like Novartis. Find out more and get involved on the ‘MSF Access’ website:

Raise the issue by writing to your MP: for a sample letter and more information, visit

Georgia Booth


Grugel, J. and Piper, N. (2009) ‘Do Rights Promote Development?’ Global Social Policy Vol. 9(1): pp 79–98

Hoen, E., Berger, J., Calmy, A. and Moon, S. (2011) ‘Driving a Decade of Change: HIV/AIDs, Patents and Access to Medicine, Journal of the International AIDS Society, [online] Available at [Accessed 08/04/2013]

Human Rights Watch (2013) ‘World Report 2013’ [online] Available at [Accessed 04/04/2013]

India Knowledge (2009) ‘Cipla Pharmaceuticals’ Yusuf Hamied: ‘I Am Not Against Patents … I Am Against Monopolies’, Interview with Yusef Hamied [online] Available at [Accessed 05/04/2013]

Ruggie, J. (2011) ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework’ [online] Available at [Accessed 05/04/2013]