Gordon Bennett: the go-to tribal rights guy

MOST lawyerswill travel the globe as they move through their career, but few will go to the exotic and remote locations frequented by New Square Chambers barrister Gordon Bennett.

When he is not in cham­bers Bennett works with tribal rights organisation Survival International to help tribal peoples throughout the Commonwealth who are facing complicated legal challenges.

In Guyana, he travelled by dug-out canoe to take instructions from Akawaio Indians about their land rights in the Upper Mazaruni Basin. He also went to Kenya to assist its government in drafting parliamentary bills to restore Maasai land stolen by corrupt officials, while in Tanzania he has worked with Barabaig nomads.

“I always go to the reserves – it’s very important,” Bennett says. “You meet the most extraordinary people who have a completely ­different take on things.”
Most often, Bennett acts for indigenous peoples in developing countries who find themselves caught up in land disputes. The most pressing challenge facingthese communities comes from multinational corporations on the hunt for new resources.

“Companies are becoming really problematic as their search for natural recourses becomes more high-pitched, techniques develop and prices fall,” says Bennett. “It’s becoming more possible to work in remote areas and there may be people living there who have no idea about what their rights are.”

However, Bennett says that since he began working with tribal communities as a young barrister, those corporates have become much more attuned to the needs of the people they are displacing.

The United Nations has commissioned Professor John Ruggie, special representative of the Secretary General on human rights and transnational corporations, to look specifically at this area with a view to devising guidelines on how corporates can best respond.

Bennett says companies are now under much more public pressure to show they are socially responsible. Groups such as Survival International, he says, have helped raise the profile of such causes.

“The world has shrunk,” he says. “People are much more aware of what’s happening. It’s difficult [for corporates] to keep these things under wraps, with things such as YouTube.

“Companies know this and they know that however remote the area is, they’re not going to stop people like me.”

Survival International, helped by Bennett, used such tactics to support Indian hill tribe the Dongria Kondh save its land from mining by FTSE100 company Vedanta Resources.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) upheld a formal complaint made by Bennett against the company on behalf of Survival International.

The OECD told Vedanta to respect the tribe’s human rights and called on it to come up with “concrete actions on the ground that lead to a change in the company’s behaviour”.

In December 2009 Bennett followed this up with a visit to the Dongria Kondh to see whether any progress had been made and reported back that it had not. This led to the Church of England deciding to sell its stake in the company. Then, last month, the Indian government rejected Vedanta’s plan to expand its refinery in the area.

“That would’ve been unthinkable 10 years ago,” Bennett says. “Companies are looking to see what such developments are going to cost them in the long run.”

Bennett’s most memorable case, he says, was working with the Botswana Bushmen, who have been systematically cleared from their homelands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by their own government.

It was one of the longest and most expensive cases ever to be heard in the country, and revolved around whether the government had the legal right to move the Bushmen on so the land could be mined for diamonds.

The ruling was so important it was televised and the Bushmen’s team of lawyers, which included Bennett, was successful in its bid to force the government to allow the tribe back onto its land.

“Nobody thought the Bushmen had any rights,” says Bennett. “Nobody even cared.”

The legal battle continued after the Botswana High Court ruled in June that the Bushmen were not entitled to access an existing borehole or drill a new one, thereby denying them access to water.

While many at the bar expect the world to come to them, Bennett has gone to extreme lengths to make sure he can get to the world. His work with Survival International is certainly rewarding, but Bennett is modest about it, preferring to simply get on with the job.

Next on the agenda is a visit to the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia, to help them secure land for their future.