REVEALING human rights violations
In 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated to the island of Barbuda, forcing the entire population to be evacuated to neighbouring Antigua – with many people losing their homes, schools and livelihoods to the Category 5 storm. The lack of reconstruction efforts prevented many residents from returning to their devastated island for months. Yet, during this time, prominent U.S. investors were able to take control of vast areas of the island which, until then, were held communally by Barbudans ever since the abolition of slavery.
The central government of Antigua and Barbuda pushed through new laws that enabled construction of a multi-million-dollar luxury tourism resort and a golf course known as the ‘Barbuda Ocean Club’ on a protected wetland, and a private jet airstrip through 300 acres of untouched forest. As a result, Barbudans have lost land, economic opportunities and resources at a time when they were vulnerable and most in need.
The situation in Barbuda is representative of a worldwide phenomenon of land grabbing, whereby governments take advantage of displaced or impoverished populations and deprive them of their rights to their land, livelihood, food, water and healthy environment, privileging the establishment of exclusive property rights in favour of foreign investors.
In Barbuda specifically, the development of such large-scale tourist infrastructure puts at risk the full realisation of several human rights on the island. This includes the right to food, water and sanitation, as construction and the related increased demand for drinkable water puts pressure on the island’s essential groundwater sources. The area on which the Barbuda Ocean Club is being built, Palmetto Point, plays a key role in channelling fresh water to the Codrington lagoon and ensuring the health of its rich ecosystem. These and other construction sites also fundamentally undermine and threaten Barbudan culture.
The transformation of the island into a tourism hub will eliminate many of its unique features and affect land which was used for farming, grazing and hunting for generations, as well as destroy physical cultural sites on the island – thereby impacting Barbudan’s cultural rights. In addition, coastal construction on top of the Ramsar-protected wetland affects the integrity of Barbuda’s ecosystem. Fundamentally, the islanders’ right to health and a healthy environment, housing and education are also at stake.
Who is involved?
GLAN has worked with SaveBarbuda.org to reveal the various corporate actors involved in the destruction of Barbuda's resources. Click here to see the list
Case Spotlight: A Win for Barbudan Land Defenders
UN expresses concern over situation
Over the course of the last five years, these worrying developments were picked up in the international media, amongst others by The Guardian and The Intercept. The serious risks to people’s right to food, water, housing, health and education were also highlighted by Human Rights Watch in reaction to the legal reforms on the island. The matter was brought to the attention of a group of United Nations (UN) legal experts, who expressed their deep concerns about the projects in a June 2021 Joint Communication to the Government of Antigua and Barbuda as well as a Joint Communication to the private investors behind the construction projects.
The UN legal experts noted the potential impacts of the Barbuda Ocean Club on human rights, including the rights to food, water and sanitation, housing, and a healthy environment, as well as cultural rights. The Joint Communications also expressed deep concern about the construction of the new international airport on Barbuda, which is linked to the partnership behind the Barbuda Ocean Club, PLH. The UN legal experts reiterated their concerns on World Wetland Day of this year – 2 February 2022 – in a Joint Press Release declaring that the luxury resort Barbuda Ocean Club puts the internationally recognized wetland of Codrington Lagoon National Park and the healthy environment at risk.
The UN legal experts have asked the PLH partnership to specify which human rights due diligence policies and processes it has in place and whether it had conducted any human rights due diligence or impact assessment concerning the Barbuda Ocean Club development. They stressed that preparing a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) prior to commencing any type of development is essential as “human rights standards must guide the approval and development of related projects in Barbuda”.
'Peace Love Happiness' claims
The only response to the UN letters on record is a letter issued by counsel for the PLH partnership last year, denying all charges. Despite acknowledging the lack of a prior human rights assessment for its projects on Barbuda and the fact that it “does not have such policies or procedures”, PLH claims that it has “plainly complied with the legal framework” guiding the human rights compliance of real estate developments. In its letter, PLH announced that it would, nevertheless, conduct a HRIA – a “delayed” step according to the UN legal experts. In addition, in lieu of an official reply to the UN legal experts’ public statement for World Wetland Day (described above), the Barbuda Ocean Club issued a statement on Facebook, claiming that its activities on the island are repairing prior environmental harm – amongst other things by creating 25 acres of new wetlands.
GLAN has been collecting and preserving evidence of potential human rights violations on Barbuda (see the page on our evidence collection project here). In addition, GLAN has been working together with SaveBarbuda to identify the corporate actors behind these projects in order to hold them accountable.
In June 2022, it came to our attention that the PLH partnership had finally commissioned a HRIA to provide a further response to the UN legal experts. It remains highly unclear – and PLH has not disclosed substantive information as to – what the terms of reference are for the HRIA as agreed between PLH and its consultancy firm. This process, which post-dates the facts, highlights PLH’s failure to conduct a HRIA prior to commencing activities (as recommended by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs and required under international standards). This means that the current projects (both the Barbuda Ocean Club and the international airstrip) have clearly not been guided by a valid HRIA. PLH has not indicated that it will halt construction until the investigation is complete.
In this context, GLAN felt compelled to enter into the public record the main inaccuracies and omissions in PLH’s first response letter to the UN legal experts, which serves as their latest and only official position on this matter. Hence, in July 2022, we published a rebuttal letter describing our account of the situation on Barbuda. The document lists and fact-checks the main claims made by PLH in their letter and flags important omissions.
Find out more about Barbuda’s unique cultural heritage through this feature by National Geographic