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14 June, 2010

POSCO must assume responsibility for Orissa violence

The following is a joint statement issued by several civil rights groups in South Korea:

On May 15, 2010, all but two out of one hundred villagers were seriously injured while police were dispersing them. They had been peacefully protesting against the POSCO steel plant project in Orissa, India. According to reports published in India, the police reportedly fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas and then prevented the injured from securing medical treatment for six days.

Since POSCO launched the steel plant project in Orissa, the villagers have been opposing the project, and calling for the protection of their land and the forest where they have been living for generations. In particular, from January 2010, the villagers have been protesting at Balithutha, which is the entry point to other villages targeted by the POSCO project. On May 15, 600 protesters were joined by others to reach a total of about 3,500. They rallied to support the protestors when they were told that the police were ready to fire. Many of the protesters were women and elderly persons.

Since POSCO launched its project, they have caused much suffering for the local people. The villagers and the communities have become divided into pro-POSCO and anti-POSCO groups. Each antagonizes the other. And as a result, all the villagers’ livelihoods are in danger due to the fear of an insecure future. Those who maintain the traditional way of living are confronting abrupt changes in their lives due to POSCO. This is a form of violence which is destroying their lives.

This violence, triggered by development, occurs not only in the villages targeted by the POSCO project but also all over India. Indigenous people and the poor are the main groups displaced by development projects. Violence caused by development has become a major international concern. Accordingly, it goes without saying that the Orissa government is expected not to take any violent action against the villagers protesting the POSCO project. And POSCO is expected to persuade the villagers to relocate to alternative locations, by providing proper and mutually agreed upon compensation.

However, on May 15, 2010, it is reportedly alleged that approximately 1,500 police officers (25 platoons) came to disperse the protesters. They used force and fired indiscriminately against women and the elderly using live ammunition. The consciences and ethics of Korean society cannot remain silent with this inhumane behaviour of the Indian police who showed indifference to the victims' lives and injuries. The Indian police have insisted that they fired after the protestors allegedly exploded a locally made bomb first. In their eyes, this made their attack legitimate. Yet a variety of online videos and TV news published disproved this stance. Police suppression in this instance did not use even a minimal level of safety for the protestors. Two troubling questions arise: WHY did the Indian police use such brutal force to disperse a group of peaceful protesters, and what was the relevant background that led to this violence?

In the process of starting up large-scale developmental projects, local governments favour multinational companies and often use force against the villagers who oppose them. This demonstrates a propensity for the prevalent use of violence. Needless to say, multinational companies are acknowledged as accomplices in the violation of human rights.

POSCO provides a variety of aid and support in India. But no matter how well POSCO carries out its various social programs, and although the Indian police have been shown responsible for the violent suppression, POSCO cannot escape its own responsibilities in the incident. After all, POSCO is a direct beneficiary of the project promoted by the government but at the cost of human rights violations. At the end of the day, POSCO is both beneficiary and accomplice at the same time. Article 5 of the ethical standard of POSCO (‘State and Society’) states: “We respect the tradition and culture of local society and do our best for the common prosperity and development with the local society.” “We are obliged to abide by international laws ratified on human rights, environment, culture and economy and by domestic laws and fiscal regulations.” Accordingly, this incident illustrates that the ethical standards of POSCO are apparently not in accord with international standards. In addition, the reputation for corporate responsibility of management that POSCO has been building up, may be in great jeopardy as a result.

POSCO would do well, with immediacy, to demonstrate transparency in its policies and implementation of projects. Relative to these points, we demand that:

1. POSCO should immediately explain its standpoint in regard to the incident in Orissa.

2. POSCO should strongly demand that the Orissa government prevent any re-occurrence of a similar situation in the future.

Signatories to the statement:
Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility
Gong-gam, Lawyers’ group for Public Interest
Korean House of International Solidarity
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions
Centre on Corporate Responsibility
People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

The statement, released on May 25, 2010, has been circulated worldwide by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

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