On borrowed time: Five years after the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Accord faces court-ordered closure

 

Five years ago, sometime before 9am on 24 April 2013, cracks started to appear in the Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, revealing a structural failure that caused the eight-story commercial building to collapse. The building contained five garment factories supplying major global brands and retailers.

It only took 90 seconds for Rana Plaza to collapse, but it took two weeks to search for the dead. When the search ended on 13 May 2013, the total of lives lost was over 1,100.

The tragedy spurred textile and clothing companies into action. In May 2013, global fashion brands and retailers and trade unions signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the “Bangladesh Accord“), a ground-breaking worker safety agreement. Adidas, H&M and Esprit are amongst the signatories.

The most famous pillar of the Bangladesh Accord is its five-year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry. This feature gained notoriety when a case was filed at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in October 2016 by two global unions, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, to hold two unnamed multinational companies to account. The case eventually settled for $2.3 million in January 2018.

There are, however, additional components to the Accord, including, importantly, the creation of an independent inspection programme.

The Accord, which gathered the support of more than 250 brands and retailers from over 20 countries, was originally established for a limited time of five years – until May 2018.

In May 2017, the Remediation Coordination Cell (“RCC“) was established under the government of Bangladesh’s National Initiative, with a view to take over from the Accord to implement the remediation process for garment factories.

In June 2017, leading fashion brands and global trade unions announced at the OECD Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct that they would enter into a new agreement, which would come into effect in 2018. Later that year, a transition agreement (the “2018 Transition Accord“) was signed, extending the Accord’s mandate for another three years, and allowing it to continue its operations until the RCC was ready to take over the platform’s responsibilities.

Everything seemed on track to guarantee a smooth continuation of the Accord’s activities… until judicial proceedings were started by a Bangladeshi factory owner who had failed to remedy safety breaches, and was therefore removed from the list of factories that Accord signatories are allowed to source from.

The factory owner sued the Accord. In April 2018, in an extraordinary unilateral action, the Bangladesh High Court issued a “suo moto” restraining order against Accord office operations. The restraining order is due to come into force on 30 November. This means that, in two days, the Bangladesh Accord will have to close its Dhaka office, severely limiting its scope of work and its ability to inspect thousands of factories supplying clothes for brands such as H&M, Esprit and Primark.

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Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 2)

LONDON – Can journalists give evidence at international criminal trials without compromising their objectivity? What is the probative value of journalistic evidence? What does it feel like to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milošević?

These were some of the questions discussed at the event Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals hosted on 25 October at London’s Frontline Club. The fourth of a series of events on “Ethics and the News”, the panel discussion was organised by the Ethical Journalism Network and Global Rights Compliance, and chaired by Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne.

In part 1 of this post, we described how journalists recounted their experience of testifying at high-profile international criminal trials. At the same event, legal practitioners also gave their thoughts on the role of journalists in such trials.

The lawyers’ view

The next speaker is the Rt Hon. Lord Justice Adrian Fulford, who was elected to serve as a judge before the ICC for a term of 9 years. Tapping into his wealth of experience, Sir Adrian acknowledges the shortcomings of international justice: trials are too lengthy, trials are too costly, not enough cases are brought before the ICC. The current system of international criminal trials, he says, is an intimidating slow-moving machine, something akin to “a Gilbert & Sullivan operetto” taking place in large surroundings, and could benefit from more imaginative ways of giving evidence to make the process less intimidating for witnesses. It is increasingly difficult to get people to testify, Sir Adrien says, but journalists tend to make good witnesses, as the essence of their role is to bear witness to events.

Wayne Jordash QC, of Global Rights Compliance, is more ambivalent: to him, journalistic evidence does not have any heightened probative value. While Jordash emphasizes the role of journalists as watchdogs as crucial (perhaps now more than ever), and agrees that photo and video evidence is critical, he suggests that journalists’ additional testimony does not have a huge bearing on a case. However, journalism is crucial in another, often ignored way: in pushing the information out and catching society’s attention. Through their reporting on human rights violations in the news, war journalists help keep human rights violations in the news cycle – this, Jordash says, helps mount and maintain support, which can in turn lead to better funding to combat such violations.

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Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 1)

Seyi Rhodes Journalists Event

Seyi Rhodes recalls giving evidence at the Gbagbo trial before the International Criminal Court.

LONDON – Can journalists give evidence at international criminal trials without compromising their objectivity? What is the probative value of journalistic evidence? What does it feel like to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milošević?

These were some of the questions discussed at the event Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals hosted on 25 October at London’s Frontline Club. The fourth of a series of events on “Ethics and the News”, the panel discussion was organised by the Ethical Journalism Network and Global Rights Compliance, and chaired by Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne.

The toll it takes to testify

The event started with the screening of a short, harrowing extract of the 1992 documentary Omarska’s Survivors: Bosnia 1992.

As the lights come back on, we hear from the first panelist, former Guardian and Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy. He is familiar with those images – in fact, he was there when they were filmed, as he and British journalist Penny Marshall managed to gain access to the infamous Omarska concentration camp and exposed the dire conditions of living for prisoners there.

A certain weariness shows on the face of Vulliamy, who explains that they reported the atrocities in Bosnia for “three effing years” before things started to change. Vulliamy bore witness to many human rights violations on the ground, and later repeated that exercise in a different, more judicial setting years later, as he became the first journalist since the Nuremberg trials to testify at an international war crimes tribunal. In total, he testified in ten trials for the prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”), including those of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić.

Would I do it all again?“, Vulliamy wonders out loud. He seems ambivalent. He stresses the difference between objectivity and neutrality; journalists have a duty to be objective, he notes, but as human beings they also cannot stay neutral in the face of horrors and wrongdoing. His answers, however also reveal the personal and mental toll it takes to re-live those experiences in front of a tribunal.

That personal toll is something that two other journalists present that night are all too familiar with.

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