Human rights advocates need to push for legislative reform and explore civil litigation if they want to make corporations more accountable for their impact on other countries, experts told the Law Union of Ontario conference this past weekend.

At a panel discussion which examined how large companies align themselves with militia governments or build up their own armed forces, lawyers and authors outlined a number of legal mechanisms that could curb violence and punish human rights abusers. One challenge to those strategies, however, may be a perception that the courts don’t offer any solutions, one panelist said.

“Some see it as grandstanding, and there’s a belief that what’s needed is better policing,” said Noah Novogrodsky, adjunct professor and director of the International Human Rights program at the University of Toronto. “When we do that, we give human rights violators a blank cheque.”

One of the reasons governments in Canada and the U.S. have not addressed human rights abuses linked to corporations is that we lack legislative tools created specifically for that purpose, said Georgette Gagnon, a lawyer who has been involved in several missions investigating slavery and human rights in Sudan. The problem, she said, is that governments are not moving to develop these tools.

Much of Gagnon’s work has focused on the role of Calgary-based Talisman Energy, which between 1998 and 2003 held a 25 per cent share in a consortium trying to develop oil production in Sudan’s conflict zones. The Government of Sudan provides security for the oil fields in which Talisman had an interest, which are located in disputed territory populated by mainly Dinka peoples. While Talisman has maintained its presence had a positive influence on the region, Gagnon said the company’s investments led the government to force people off their land, targeting civilians, burning their homes, and abducting women and children. During the 17-year civil war in Sudan, the UN and other international organizations estimate that some two million people have died and some 4.5 million have been displaced.

Gagnon said her report has been largely ignored by the Canadian government that sponsored it. That is why she is pushing for home state laws that would regulate transnational corporations.

“We think we’re not supposed to tell them where to invest,” said Gagnon, “but corporate law is all about that. And corporations have gotten a free ride.”

Last September, Novogrodsky opened the first known Canadian legal clinic at the University of Toronto to focus specifically on human rights law. The committee of lawyers at the clinic, which includes three law professors and 14 law students, has been working on seven cases ranging from aboriginal land claims in Belize to providing a legal opinion on the United Nations’ right to deliver humanitarian aid.

One of the resources at the clinic’s disposal is the United States’ Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which allows foreign victims of serious human rights abuse abroad to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts. Novogrodsky said the Bush administration recently filed a statement protesting the use of this act against corporations following a case against energy company UNOCAL by a group of Burmese people who say they were forced to work as slaves on a pipeline project.

The development of private armies or partnerships with militia governments by corporations has a long historical precedent, said Madelaine Drohan, author of the recently published Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Forces For Profit. In every case profiled in her book, Drohan said there was a prevailing ethos that gave companies the cover they needed. Companies might have justified force to advance the goals of colonialism in the days of the British Empire, for example, or to combat Communist rivals in the days of the Cold War.

Today, Drohan said, companies like Talisman, Royal Dutch Shell and Ranger Oil are operating in a world that champions free markets. In many corporations, she said, the use of force and human rights abuses are unknown to ill-informed boards of directors which help manage these firms. The one hope is that the accounting scandals of the last three years will lead to more strict governance practices, she added.

“They’re still focused on the bottom line,” said Drohan, “but if (governance rules) actually happen we’ll still have side benefits in terms of human rights, simply because their activities will be more transparent.”

Novogrodsky said the power of regulation and civil action should not be underestimated. “For one thing, it damages their reputation, and that can drive up the cost of doing business,” he said. “This is a language that business understands.”

The 30th annual Law Union of Ontario conference, which ran Feb. 26-27, looked at a wide range of issues including policing, national security and health care.