BRICS summit: headway on Syria but can we also discuss corporate accountability and civil society participation

The fith BRICS summit held in Durban, South Africa in late March was largely a government – business show with scant involvement of civil society. But a positive step has been taken by the BRICS statement on humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria.

Mandeep Tiwana
3 April 2013

Politics and business make for strange bedfellows. When the leaders of the five BRICS countries which account for 40% of the world’s population and more than a quarter of the world’s GDP met in South Africa last week for their summit, many in civil society were left wondering what is it other than pure commercial interest that brings these five countries together. India, Brazil and South Africa are vibrant democracies with vibrant civil societies albeit with their challenges.  Russia and China subscribe to more paternalistic and authoritarian paradigms of governance with little space for civil society members and dissidents to critique government actions. Nevertheless, the BRICS mechanism claims to have expanded its focus from mainly economic cooperation to contributing positively to global peace, stability and development.

This was evident in South Africa’s hosting of the summit. A clear call was made in the BRICS Communiqué for all parties in Syria to “allow and facilitate immediate, safe, full and unimpeded access to humanitarian organisations to all in need of assistance.” The call follows an appeal by a group of eminent civil society activists to BRICS leaders to convince the Syrian government to allow the UN unimpeded humanitarian access within and across Syria’s borders as the death toll crosses 70, 000. The appeal was particularly significant as Assad’s advisor urged BRICS leaders for an intervention to, “stop the violence in the country and encourage the opening of a dialogue” which the Syrian government wishes to start even as extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, hunger and lack of shelter in the country abound.

Perhaps, the BRICS governments reflected on their failure to reach consensus with the international community on stopping the carnage in Syria for the past two years. The crisis has certainly become a threat to international peace and stability spilling into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan where increasing numbers of the 3 million refugees and displaced persons are headed. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China must bear responsibility for not taking adequate diplomatic measures to prevent the unfolding humanitarian disaster. A peace mission by India, Brazil and South Africa in August last year also failed to achieve any tangible results. However, with the BRICS governments putting their weight behind humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria, it is now hoped that some relief is in sight. The test of the BRICS’ resolve will be whether or not President Assad grants immediate permission to the UN to cross Syria’s borders to meet the escalating needs. The armed opposition must also allow safe passage to relief convoys and personnel into the territories within their control.

At the summit, the BRICS also resolved to set up a BRICS-led Development Bank, the details of which are to be hashed out and will be reviewed by the BRICS in their next meeting in September 2013. The proposed bank could provide an alternative line of credit for developing countries which have so far had to rely on existing financial institutions for their development projects. Western democracies which control the IMF and to some extent the World Bank have often been accused of being selective in their dealings, sanctioning some governments that routinely abuse human rights while overlooking human rights abuses by others considered as strategic partners.  Civil society will be watching closely whether funds from this initiative are not diverted to authoritarian regimes to entrench oppression of their populations as there are concerns that the bank will be dominated by China, given its political and economic heft. It remains to be seen whether the democratic trio of India, Brazil and South Africa will have the political will and influence to ensure social accountability and human rights standards are factored into the new bank’s guidelines.

With moves afoot on the greater economic cooperation between the BRICS countries, it is also perhaps time for leaders to also have an honest conversation about rights violations by extractive, agriculture and construction industries from BRICS countries. Since the overarching theme of the summit was “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation,” this is particularly significant as large numbers of people who traditionally rely on communal land for their subsistence are increasingly being forcibly displaced by transnational corporations on the African continent. BRICS leaders also promised to support sustainable development in Africa. In this vein, the UN Secretary General’s report on business and human rights calls for global efforts to bridge existing governance gaps and safeguard protection and respect for human rights in the context of economic activities. The role of transnational corporations in precipitating environmental disasters and climate change in Africa and beyond must not be overlooked as BRICS countries seek to implement their agreements.

Unfortunately, the summit was largely a government – business show with scant involvement of civil society. With BRICS countries poised to become major providers of development cooperation, from civil society’s perspective, the communiqué should have included some mention of the global compact on aid and development effectiveness agreed in Busan, South Korea in 2011. The Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation promises to recognise civil society organisations as independent development actors and guarantee them an enabling operating environment in line with internationally agreed standards. To be taken seriously by the international community, BRICS governments need to respect this commitment at home and in their dealings with their development partners.

A positive step has been taken by the BRICS statement on humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria but there needs to be much more talk about corporate accountability and civil society participation in future BRICS summits.

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