By Karen Savage
Three Native American women have accused the global banking giant Credit Suisse of violating the human rights of Indigenous peoples, and have asked the firm to stop financing companies that are building and maintaining two oil pipelines in the United States.
In a formal complaint filed in January with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the women said that Credit Suisse failed to ensure that the companies working on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, as well the multi-state Dakota Access Pipeline, followed the organization’s guidelines for consulting with and seeking consent from nearby Indigenous communities regarding the pipelines. They also charged that by continuing to finance fossil fuel companies, Credit Suisse is worsening the climate crisis.
The complaint comes after two years of discussions with Credit Suisse, said Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, which partnered with two other groups to file it on the women’s behalf, Divest Invest Protect and the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. In keeping with OECD protocol, the women’s names have not been released publicly.
"Every time we met with them they would say, ‘We are not investing in projects, we are only investing in the overall corporate structure of that company and giving them money — we have no say where that money goes.’ We are saying that's ridiculous. ” Lake said. “You cannot give to a company that is committing Indigenous or human rights violations and lift your hands and say, 'We have nothing to do with this because we're not involved with that project directly.'”
Credit Suisse did not respond to a request for comment about the complaint.
Environmental groups have criticized international lenders, including Credit Suisse, for continuing to finance fossil fuel companies and projects. According to a report released in 2019 by the Rainforest Action Network and other advocacy groups, Credit Suisse provided fossil fuel companies with nearly $57 billion in financing between 2015 and 2018, putting it in the top twenty global lenders to the sector.
The OECD, a 36-nation trade and organization that sets guidelines for “responsible business conduct,” requires all member countries to receive and review formal complaints alledging that companies have failed to follow OECD standards for human rights, workers rights, and the environment. According to OECD Watch, a human rights watchdog group, communities and non-governmental organizations have filed over 300 such complaints since 2000.
This is not the first complaint to the OECD regarding Credit Suisse. In 2017, the Society for Threatened Peoples, an international human rights organization, filed a similar complaint over Credit Suisse’s financing for three firms developing the Dakota Access Pipeline: Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Transfer Equity, and Sunoco Logistics.
The three companies came under fire in 2016 for rerouting the pipeline's Missouri River crossing from a site near the predominantly white city of Bismarck, North Dakota, to a site just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. In response to intensifying anti-pipeline protests near the new site, the firms hired a paramilitary security contractor, TigerSwan, which used sometimes-violent counterterrorism tactics against water protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native American nations, as well as other protesters.
“Both the government and private sector enlisted and sanctioned dangerous and dehumanizing tactics through a taxpayer-funded, militarized law enforcement with documented human rights abuses,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, said in a statement in late 2016. “The aggressive acts of these forces have caused severe injuries and endangered the safety of thousands of peaceful protectors who share our goal of protecting the water.”
To resolve that complaint Credit Suisse agreed to ensure that its corporate customers would obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples “when there is credible evidence that the proceeds of a project-related transaction are used for activities which may negatively impact an area used or traditionally claimed by an Indigenous community.” Under international treaties such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous peoples have the right to be informed of proposed projects that could affect them or their historic territories, negotiate the conditions of such projects, and give or withhold consent for them at any time.
In practice, however, Indigenous communities worldwide face ongoing struggles to uphold those rights.
The agreement is a good first step but includes a giant loophole, according to Lake, because it only applies to Credit Suisse’s project-related financing, or funding provided for specific projects, like pipelines or other infrastructure. It doesn’t include corporate finance, which companies use for general operating expenses.
Lake said by continuing to provide the companies with general funding despite the evidence of abuses related to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Credit Suisse allowed the same companies to again harm Indigenous peoples and the environment in 2018, during construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana. The pipeline runs under Bayou LaFourche, the source of drinking water for about 300,000 people, including the United Houma Nation and several south Louisiana parishes.
"Part of the reason that we included Bayou Bridge is that even after we met with them twice — and we're talking about high-level meetings with representatives from Credit Suisse with delegations of four or five women at the time, representing the Dakota Access Pipeline, clearly explaining violations that occurred, both human Indigenous rights violations, as well as environmental and climate issues — there was no action,” Lake said. “That allowed some of the same companies that they were financing to continue and go on to the next project, which was Bayou Bridge.”
The companies are now planning an expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but have again failed to obtain consent from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said Lake.
At a November hearing of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, Jon Eagle Sr., the historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Sioux, testified that the tribe does not support expansion of the pipeline. “Tribal members live every day under the risk of an oil spill that would harm the waters that sustain our people, our economy, and our spiritual lives,” Eagle told the commission. “An oil spill would foul the water that we drink, that we rely upon for our Treaty-protected subsistence hunting, fishing, and traditional plant gathering, and that provides irrigation for our farming and other economic ventures.”
Lake said Credit Suisse’s continued financing of the companies behind the pipelines is further evidence that both its internal guidelines, as well as the resolution of the 2017 complaint, have not led to recognition and observance of Indigenous rights.
“They have not responded in any regard to what the Standing Rock Sioux have made clearly as a statement over and over and over again,” she said. “Now is the time for banks to move toward a just and sustainable future for all where the rights of Indigenous people are upheld and we protect our climate and communities.”