3p Contributor: Michael Kourabas

Michael Kourabas Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

Recent Articles

Companies, Not World Bank Make Progress on Forced Labor in Uzbekistan

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday February 11th, 2015 | 0 Comments
A cotton field in Samarqand, Uzbekistan.

A cotton field in Samarqand, Uzbekistan.

Last year, another cotton harvest in Uzbekistan made its way to the market on the backs of Uzbek citizens forced to labor in the cotton fields.  Yet, while some significant corporate holdouts remain, recent research by the Responsible Sourcing Network suggests that several international brands — including Hanes, Sears and Target — are doing more to keep Uzbek cotton out of their products and supply chains.

In light of the World Bank’s recent decision not to investigate connections between the Bank’s development projects and the forced labor in Uzbekistan, positive steps by apparel and home goods companies are vital.

The RSN pledge and survey

In 2011, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) launched its “Cotton Pledge” campaign, asking apparel and home goods companies around the world to commit to keeping Uzbek cotton out of their products for as long as Uzbekistan continues to rely on forced labor.  As of Jan. 16, 165 companies have signed the pledge — including household names like adidas, Gap, Patagonia and Sears, the latest corporate signatory.

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A Sustainable Supply Chain “Race to the Top”

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday January 28th, 2015 | 0 Comments

Levi StraussLevi Strauss is hoping that, by incentivizing its worldwide web of suppliers to operate more responsibly, it can create what it is calling a sustainability “race to the top” in its supply chain.  The program, which the world’s most-recognized jeans maker and the World Bank jointly unveiled last November, is startling simple.  In exchange for improving their performance across a number of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) metrics, Levi Strauss’s suppliers will be able to access a sliding-scale of lower-cost financing arranged by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

If the program succeeds, the IFC could eventually expand it sector-wide, fundamentally changing the way the garment industry operates.  Yet, even if the program significantly improves the behavior of Levi Strauss’s suppliers, the program’s real success may be measured by the impact it has on the company itself.

An overview of the incentive program

The Levi Strauss-IFC program is being rolled out country by country, beginning in South Asia — a particularly problematic region and where many of Levi Strauss’s suppliers are based. The IFC recently held an explanatory meeting in Pakistan for all of the Levi Strauss vendors in Pakistan, for instance, at which the IFC explained the incentive program and answered questions from suppliers.  Once the program is introduced in a country, any vendor is eligible to participate, and thus far participation levels have been encouraging.

According to Levi Strauss VP of sustainability, Michael Kobori, all of Levi Strauss’s suppliers based in Bangladesh and Pakistan have expressed interest in the program.

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Bananas, the Colombian Civil War and the U.S. Supreme Court

Michael Kourabas
| Tuesday January 13th, 2015 | 0 Comments

5451018142_b2113b21e9_zLast week, a group of Colombian plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to revive their lawsuit against banana giant Chiquita.  This case presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify its 2013 decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell and give much needed guidance to plaintiffs and businesses regarding when a corporation may be liable under U.S. law for human rights abuses committed abroad.

Background on Colombia’s civil war

Colombia’s is the longest running civil war in the Western Hemisphere.  The conflict stretches back some 50 years and has resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter-million people — mostly civilians.  A recently-concluded government study estimates that nearly 5 million people have been displaced since 1996 alone, helping Colombia become the state with the second largest internally-displaced population in the world.

The civil war began in earnest in the early-1960s, when high levels of poverty and income inequality sparked an uprising by leftist guerrillas.  In response, a network of paramilitary militias sprang up to protect landed interests.  These groups were funded by a combination of drug money, U.S. government largesse and, as we will see, American corporate dollars.

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Canadian Mining Companies and Corporate Accountability

Michael Kourabas
| Monday January 5th, 2015 | 0 Comments

455141840_c857f90606_zCanadian multinationals beware: Your home and native land may now be the forum of choice for plaintiffs seeking to bring international human rights lawsuits.

In November, Canadian mining firm, Nevsun Resources, was sued in a Vancouver court by three Eritrean refugees alleging that Nevsun “aided, abetted, contributed to and became an accomplice to the use of forced labor, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses” at an Eritrean mine.  The Nevsun case is just the most recent human rights suit to appear in Canadian court, where the alleged harm was committed by a Canadian corporation operating abroad.

The allegations

The Eritrean plaintiffs are former employees of the Bisha Mining Share Co. (BMSC), a project jointly-operated by Vancouver-based Nevsun and the Eritrean state-owned Segen Construction.  Prior to their employment at BMSC, the plaintiffs were conscripted into the Eritrean army as part of Eritrea’s much-criticized national service program.  In 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) linked the Eritrean service program, which requires all able-bodied Eritrean men and most women to either join the military or work for state-owned companies, to the mass exploitation of workers in Eritrea’s burgeoning mining sector.

At BMSC, the plaintiffs claim they were made to work grueling hours under deplorable conditions, for insufficient compensation, and without proper medical care, shelter or food.  The conscripted Eritreans were forcibly confined to the mine — separate from the foreign workers — and under persistent watch by security personnel.  If they left the mine site without authorization, plaintiffs claim conscripts were subjected to severe punishment.

According to the complaint, forced labor is so widespread and inhumane at BMSC that it constitutes a crime against humanity.

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“Coal Means Death for Us”: Big Coal and Forced Evictions in Colombia

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday December 17th, 2014 | 2 Comments
According to a lawsuit filed in Colombia by La Guajira residents, between August 2001 and January 2002, the owners of the Cerrejón mine

According to a lawsuit filed in Colombia by La Guajira residents, the owners of the Cerrejón mine displaced indigenous populations by destroying local infrastructure.

Here’s a sad truth: The displacement of indigenous populations as a result of international corporate development projects is a relatively common practice. A mining or agricultural company needs land, so a deal is struck with a corrupt government providing land to the corporation, whether or not it is occupied. Those with the misfortune of living in the way of the project are forced to leave, under the threat of violence or an approaching bulldozer; development begins while insufficient attention is paid to environmental concerns, leading to the pollution of local water sources; people die, either from disease or violent clashes with security forces.

Sound familiar? It should, because in weakly-governed states in Africa, Asia and South America, where governments are more interested in attracting (and siphoning off) foreign investment than in protecting the land or the people, this happens every day.

The story of the Cerrejón mine in the the Guajira region in Colombia is one such story, and it carries a simple lesson: In La Guajira, Colombia, the resource beneath the ground is more valuable than the people who live above it.

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Young v. UPS and the Rights of Pregnant Women in the Workforce

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday December 10th, 2014 | 2 Comments

15747976465_a9e2b753e6_zLast week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Young v. UPS, a case that could change the way pregnant women are treated by their employers.  The case will force conservative justices to choose between two core right-wing constituencies: anti-choice activists and pro-business groups.

The facts

In 2006, Peggy Young was in her fifth year as a part-time driver for UPS, a position which required her to move mostly envelopes and small packages.  When she became pregnant, her doctor advised her against lifting more than 20 pounds for the duration of her pregnancy.  UPS policy requires all drivers to be able to lift up to 70 pounds at a time, so Young asked the company if she could be put on “lighter duty” while pregnant — i.e., if she could answer phones or work a desk job — which UPS provided for employees who were (i) disabled, (ii) had been injured on the job or (iii) had lost their commercial driver’s license.

UPS denied Young’s request, reasoning that pregnancy was neither a disability nor an on-the-job injury and therefore did not warrant a lighter-duty assignment.  Instead, she was put on immediate unpaid leave and lost her benefits — including her health insurance — for the next nine months.

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Forced Labor Occuring Now in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday December 3rd, 2014 | 1 Comment

cottonYesterday was the “International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.”  Though many of us may consider slavery only a cruel and shameful historical relic, forced labor still generates upwards of $150 billion each year.  In other words, modern slavery is, as it was in antebellum America, Big Business.  This past fall, for example, millions of men, women, and children across Uzbekistan were forced by the government to leave their homes, jobs, and schools in order to pick cotton for the state.  The same thing happens every cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, contributing to the country’s position as one of the world’s leading cotton exporters.  Laborers are paid almost nothing, and refusal can be met with public humiliation, violence, or the loss of one’s job or place in school.

Overview of the Uzbek system

Uzbekistan exports nearly one million tons of cotton each year, earning the government a yearly profit of more than a billion dollars and a spot as one of the top five cotton producing countries in the world.  It does so by forcing its citizens to do the picking for little-to-no remuneration (about six cents per kg harvested).  In 2013, as many as five million Uzbek citizens — or 16 percent of the population — were forced to pick cotton.

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How Firestone Buoyed the Rise of Convicted War Criminal Charles Taylor

Michael Kourabas
| Friday November 21st, 2014 | 1 Comment

14425740567_dacf8fff52_zOn Nov. 18, PBS aired “Firestone and the Warlord,” the result of a joint Frontline-ProPublica investigation into the relationship between the Firestone tire company and Liberia’s former president and convicted war criminal, Charles Taylor.  ProPublica also published a lengthy companion piece under the same title, drawing upon hundreds of interviews and scores of never-before-seen documents.  The result is an exhaustively researched and fresh look at the vital role played by a major international corporation in supporting one of Africa’s most brutal dictators.

Firestone’s history in Liberia

Firestone first came to Liberia in the 1920s, seeking to exploit the country’s vast rubber resources.  In 1926, it opened the rubber plantation that, 66 years later, would serve as Charles Taylor’s base for directing his brutal assault on Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.

Firestone’s Liberian rubber plantation was considered to be the world’s largest and was a key asset for a company that, after being swallowed up by Bridgestone in 1988, began to experience cash-flow problems.  So, despite generating just $16 million in revenue in 1989 (the year before the start of Liberia’s civil war), the plantation’s 15 percent profit margin represented a much-needed “bright spot on a corporate ledger drowning in red ink.”  The plantation provided roughly 40 percent of the latex in America at the time.

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Can Nuclear Fusion Save the Planet?

Michael Kourabas
| Thursday November 13th, 2014 | 17 Comments
Nuclear fusion’s tenuous future as a reliable energy source is perhaps best illustrated by the history of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project.

Nuclear fusion’s tenuous future as a reliable energy source is perhaps best illustrated by the history of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. The project is under construction (here the round shape of the future Tokamak is now apparent in June 2013) and should be turned on within a decade.

Our ability to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy will likely determine the fate of the planet.  Some countries are making progress toward this goal, using solar, wind and water power.  In the historic deal struck on Wednesday between the U.S. and China, for instance, China pledged that solar and wind power would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.  Denmark, which aims to completely eliminate its use of fossil fuels by 2050, will rely on its cutting-edge wind power industry.  Germany has focused on solar and wind power in its push to remake its electricity system, and Brazil now derives more than 75 percent of its electricity from hydro-power sources.

Yet, the real ‘solution’ to global warming may lie in a fourth renewable energy source, and one about which we typically hear almost nothing: nuclear fusion.

The science

Nuclear fusion isn’t new.  In fact, the oldest thermonuclear reactor is approximately 13 billion years old or the approximate age of the universe and the first star.  Our most popular fusion reactor is the sun.  Explaining the real science behind nuclear fusion is best left to the experts, but the short of it is that fusion, the reaction that gives stars their energy, is the opposite of fission.  Whereas nuclear fission creates energy by splitting one atom into two, fusion does it by joining two (hydrogen) atoms together to create one (helium), and the resulting reaction releases neutrons and an unbelievable amount of energy.

As it turns out, this is quite difficult, because in order to get the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms to fuse, one must defeat the protons’ natural tendency to repel each other.  Overcoming this tendency requires temperatures of over 100 million Kelvin (~six times hotter than the temperature at the sun’s core) and incredibly high pressure.  The prevailing method for accomplishing this is known as magnetic confinement, using a reactor known as a tokamak, and it is impossible to understand.  (There’s also another method that involves lasers, and it is even more confusing.)

Humans have been experimenting with nuclear fusion since the 1950s, and the scary amount of energy released by a fusion reaction was the impetus for the hydrogen bomb.  As our own RP Siegel pointed out, the goal of those working to turn nuclear fusion into a renewable energy source — as opposed to a weapon — is to take the science behind the H-bomb and control it, thereby allowing for the gradual (and self-sustaining) release of energy.  Unfortunately, doing this has heretofore proved impossible.

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Adidas Creates Human Rights Complaint Process

Michael Kourabas
| Thursday November 6th, 2014 | 0 Comments

10095914514_55cafe6ecb_zLast month, German sportswear giant, The Adidas Group (Adidas), quietly released its “Third Party Complaint Process for Breaches to the Adidas Group Workplace Standards or Violations of International Human Rights Norms” (the Process).  Although the document is not perfect, and it is impossible to fairly evaluate the process without examining how it functions in practice, Adidas appears to have created a strong grievance mechanism that passes muster under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights.

What did Adidas do?

Introduction: The document containing the new Adidas Process opens with a bold pronouncement:  “The Adidas Group is committed to operating as a sustainable business which is environmentally sound, respects human rights and ensures fair, safe and healthy working conditions across our global supply chain.”  The Process was designed to help Adidas satisfy these commitments.

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Human Rights Guidance for Corporate Lawyers

Michael Kourabas
| Monday November 3rd, 2014 | 0 Comments

8035396680_31ed820eb3_zIn the years since the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (Guiding Principles) were unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, groups like Shift and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) have worked hard to educate businesses on how the Guiding Principles impact their operations and influence their decision-making.  Much of this guidance has been sector specific, and rightly so.  Human rights are not impacted uniformly or in the same ways across industries, and companies in the extractive, apparel or ICT sectors, for instance,  arguably operate in “riskier” environments than businesses in other industries.

Yet, despite playing major roles in drafting, advising and acting on the Guiding Principles, lawyers had thus far been offered little help understanding the impact of the Guiding Principles on their work.   Last week, the International Bar Association (IBA) did its part to rectify that, issuing guidance — the first of its kind — to bar associations, private lawyers and law firms about how to integrate the Guiding Principles into their work.   This is a welcome first step in what should be a broad discussion among lawyers and bar associations regarding the role of lawyers in the implementation of the Guiding Principles.

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Cambodian “Reintegration” Program Sends Sex Workers to Sweatshops

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday October 22nd, 2014 | 0 Comments

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 4.17.22 PMIn case you still weren’t sure how you felt about labor practices in Cambodia’s growing apparel manufacturing sector, maybe this will help get you off the fence.  According to a short video posted by VICE News last week, female sex workers arrested in Cambodia are being forced into jobs in the country’s infamously inhumane garment industry.  If this is true, what to make of it?

The VICE documentary

Here’s how the claim arises in VICE’s “The High Cost of Cheap Clothes” mini-documentary, in which VICE founder, Suroosh Alvi, travels to Cambodia’s capital to investigate “what is happening to those swept up in the country’s trafficking crackdown.” The video opens with Alvi reminding us that, although Cambodia is one of the capitals of the sex tourism industry, the country has been cracking down on the sex trade since 2008 when, at the supposed behest of the U.S., the government initiated an “aggressive” anti-trafficking and prostitution campaign.

Alvi’s investigation takes him first to a ride along with the anti-trafficking unit of the Ministry of the Interior, which quickly turns into the raid of a building allegedly housing sex traffickers.  The raid leads to a few very young-looking women (girls?) being handcuffed.  Over screams and much crying, we are shown a tiny room, barely illuminated by a creepy, red light.  On the floor are a few mattresses and a roll of toilet paper.  “This is about as dark as it gets,” Alvi says.

After the girls have been rounded up, Alvi turns to one of the cops and asks, “Where will you take the girls?” The cop responds that they will first be brought to the “anti-trafficking department,” then on to the unfortunately named “re-education training department.”

And now we have arrived at what Alvi tells us is the “crux” of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking program.

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This is Water: Lessons From My ‘4 Liters Challenge’

Michael Kourabas
| Thursday October 16th, 2014 | 6 Comments

10689547_750193981709206_6747488843991222514_nOn an average day, I waste a shameful amount of water.  So do you.  We all do, and we do it while hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world live in “water poverty,” consuming less water in an entire day than most of us use flushing the toilet a few times.

I learned all of this when I decided to take DIGDEEP’s4 Liters Challenge” — a pledge to use a total of only 4 liters of water for one entire day.  The challenge was not pleasant.  Far worse than the experience was coming to terms with just how much water we waste.

Context

Does the 4 Liters Challenge sound hard?  I actually wasn’t sure until I put it in context.  First, most of us use nearly 4 liters of water — in other words, all of the water allotted in the challenge — every time we wash our hands or face.  Most Americans use more than 400 liters of water (!) every single day, or 100 times what the challenge requires.  A single toilet flush uses about 6 liters of water, and a mere three flushes amounts to more water than most other people in the world use all day to clean, cook, drink and bathe.  The average dishwasher uses 23 liters of water, and running the water while you brush your teeth could waste 9 liters. The all important shower?  Newer shower models use about 9.5 liters of water every minute, so a quick, five-minute shower uses about 47.5 liters of water and a 10-minute shower — a little longer than the average — uses (wastes?) almost 100 liters.

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Walmart Commits to More Sustainable Food. Is it Serious?

Michael Kourabas
| Thursday October 9th, 2014 | 0 Comments

14010430133_b901245d34_zOn Monday, Walmart held its second semi-annual Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting — webcast live and re-aired the following day — and announced a new pledge to help create a more sustainable food system. Taken at face value, the country’s largest food retailer appears to be making a real commitment to help develop a healthier, more affordable, and less environmentally damaging food supply.  Walmart’s real legacy in this area, though, will be measured by how much concrete action follows its ambitious commitments.

At the outset of the milestones webcast, the company’s CEO, Doug McMillon, proclaimed that in order to meet the population’s increasing food demands, Walmart and its suppliers need to become more sustainable players in the global food supply chain.  According to this new commitment, Walmart will aim to achieve this by ensuring that the food it sells, and the supply chain from which that food comes, is: (i) more affordable (to the environment, society, and customers); (ii) safer and more transparent; (iii) healthier; and (iv) more accessible.

Like many corporate marketing efforts, in both the webcast and the company’s concurrent announcements it is difficult to parse the genuine commitments from the hollow promises; the real passion from the empty rhetoric meant to patronize the most environmentally conscious consumers and NGOs.

To look strictly at its pledges, Walmart sure seems to acknowledge that bold action is required if it is to contribute to reversing the trends of environmental degradation and resource scarcity.  The company, which claims that environmental sustainability is now an “essential ingredient” in its business model, already says that it strives to sell only products that “sustain people and the environment.”

So, how exactly is the company planning to increase the sustainability of the food it buys and sells?

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U.S. Promises Action on U.N. Human Rights Principles

Michael Kourabas
| Wednesday October 1st, 2014 | 0 Comments

2767099314_77272ba8b8_zLast week, the U.S. State Department announced that the government would develop a National Action Plan to “promote and incentivize responsible business conduct,” in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).  Once complete, the U.S. will join the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Spain as the only states to have released National Action Plans on business and human rights (BHR NAPs).  According to the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Switzerland and Finland are also in the process of developing their own plans.

The announcement comes in advance of official United Nations guidance on the subject, promised by the U.N. Working Group for December 2014, which ought to inform the U.S. process.  While this news may barely register on the radar of even those most interested in corporate social responsibility, organizations like Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) have been publicly pushing President Barack Obama to develop a BHR NAP for some time. (ICAR is also working with the Danish Institute for Human Rights on a larger NAP project that aims to provide guidance for governments in the development, implementation, and review of BHR NAPs.)

What is a BHR NAP and why does it matter?

In short, a BHR NAP is a policy document that explains how a particular state intends to go about fulfilling its duty to protect human rights from corporate abuse.  In general, NAPs are useful tools in the advancement of any particular policy objective in that, among other things, they tend to mobilize various stakeholders, promote collaboration and outline the parameters of expected action. Three years after the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UNGPs, it called on all Member States to develop BHR NAPs in order to promote the implementation of the UNGPs within each state’s national legal framework.

In a sense, the creation of a NAP is akin to the crucial step of domestic implementation of a treaty or other international instrument (and the future of the rights or obligations it purports to protect/enforce), including international human rights treaties, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), or those creating international institutions, like the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

By ratifying the ICCPR, for instance, the U.S. committed to “prevent and protect against discrimination and ensure equal treatment for all … without any limitations or exceptions.”  Yet, domestic implementation of the ICCPR has been lacking.  Who, for instance, can argue that the federal government has come close to accomplishing this (admittedly lofty) aim?

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