“Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence, but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it,” Professor Tricia D. Olsen said, quoting Adam Smith. More than two centuries after he wrote those words, the question of reconciling the free market and social justice remains hotly contested.
The Political Science and Economics Departments hosted the annual Vogel Lecture on April 19 in the Lipton Lecture Hall. This year’s event, titled “Corporate Wrongdoing — The Possibilities for Accountability and Redress in Latin America,” featured a conversation about the harms caused by transnational corporations in the region, including human rights abuses, and the future of economic regulation.
Speakers at the lecture included Daniel Marín López and Tricia D. Olsen, with political science professors Javier Corrales and Kerry Ratigan moderating the panel. After the speakers presented their research, the audience was invited to participate in a short Q&A.
López, who presented the first half of the lecture, is a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, as well as a lecturer on human rights and business at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. He has also served as an expert advisor on corporate complicity in human rights abuses to Colombia’s truth commission, which was created in 2016 to heal divisions after years of civil conflict.
López began by discussing issues associated with coal mines in Colombia, which are owned by transnational corporations. Because the mining districts are labeled as ‘public utility projects,’ the central government has purview over mining in the region.
“At the end, these are actually negotiations between the central government, the executive branch, and the companies. And why is this important? It’s because you don’t have any kind of participation by communities or municipalities in these issues,” López said.
López highlighted the takeover of chunks of land in coal mining areas and showed how displacement and rates of violence against the peasant population rose significantly with the arrival of companies. Violence against union leaders, teachers, and workers appeared especially stark.
López recalled an interview with a food supplier for Drummond, a coal company, who became an intermediary between the company and paramilitaries.
“I knew that they were going to attack these people, like the union leaders, but I did not have the capacity to determine these homicides,” the supplier told López.
“He was explicitly saying, ‘It’s in the capacity of the company to do that,’” Lopez said.
While several cases against Drummond filed in the U.S. were dismissed on procedural grounds, there are several suits in Colombia still pending. However, there are limits to restitution, due to the long-term effects of mining on the land.
“The problem is that [the former peasant land] is a hole. So they cannot restitute the land to the peasant population,” López said.
On the lessons from these events, López noted the importance of state involvement in holding corporations accountable and taking domestic action against transnational corporations.
Olsen, who spoke next, is an associate professor and associate dean at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Her research and fieldwork on business ethics and economic development examines under what circumstances victims take measures to seek redress for corporate human rights abuses, including her compiling of over 13,000 corporate human rights abuses across Latin America.
Olsen’s segment of the lecture took a broad view of corporate wrongdoing, examining how institutional strength, the characteristics of the corporation, and organizations elevating voices contribute to redress in cases of corporate wrongdoing.
Olsen cautioned against emphasizing state weakness in the face of corporate power, commenting on the ability of states today to influence corporate policy.
“Corporate strength is the result of state policy, and this is particularly true in Latin America, where neoliberal policies and the Washington Consensus were specifically designed to create large, powerful companies and relatively weak states,” Olsen said.
The tension between private and public spheres has real effects on the legitimacy of democratic systems, Olsen argued.
“Lots of people in Latin America and around the globe are actually trying to understand how to navigate this tension, feeling very much like economic growth has been fine, but it’s unequally distributed,” she said. “I think it has implications for people’s interest in waiting out the democratic experiment.”
Following Olsen’s presentation, a discussion segment began. López noted how conversations around human rights have an unclear relationship with corporations and emphasized the difficulties inherent in holding corporations to the same standards as states.
“The international human rights regime was based mostly for state actors. That is one of the main challenges that current affairs in human rights is facing. Usually the way we think about human rights, state responsibilities, is that they are applied by treaties or other sorts of conventions,” López said. “In an international level, [corporations] have personhood, sort of, at least in human rights there’s a conversation about that.”
Olsen also remarked on how the paradigms of human rights advocates and corporations are drastically different.
“The human rights world writes about this as though there’s this story of corporate impunity. From a strategic management perspective, the world is a scary, risky place, and there are competitors, and regulators around every turn, and you are lucky if you survive another day,” Olsen said. “So, it’s just this complete disconnect on how business leaders really perceive the world and how human rights advocates think of it.”
Du Bai ’26, who heard about the lecture through his political science class, appreciated Olsen incorporating a business perspective he had not been familiar with.
“Her points on business reactions to environmental, or just state regulations in general, and from the perspective of risk management methods, I think it’s very interesting to think about it, from the perspective of the business,” Bai said.
Ariana Rodriguez ’24, who majors in economics with an interest in developing countries, felt the talk was important in showing both the present issues and also ways forward.
“First, the widespread nature of the issue, I think, became clearer than ever,” Rodriguez said. “I also think that the content that was shown also inspires a little bit of hope for remedy.”
Rodriguez also appreciated the collaboration between the two guest speakers.
“I thought it was so interesting, because we had two very amazing people that had different perspectives on the issue. So, we had [López], on the ground, hands on, directly part of the [Truth] Commission, and then we had Tricia Olsen, who had this big dataset, macro view of the issue,” she said. “I think they complemented each other very well.”
Lucas Romualdo ’24 saw the value in providing an international perspective on campus.
“I think the political sphere at Amherst, in a lot of ways, can be pretty American-centric, and I think it’s always good for students to see not only international politics and events, but also the impacts of that on people, and how these people are reacting to that, and also the role that Americans and the American government, American companies, and American people play in those international events,” Romualdo said.
In ending the lecture, Olsen highlighted the widespread nature of corporate abuses and the role of protections in helping everyday people.
“One thing that I’ve realized when I was doing this research and I’ve been teaching about this: everyone has a business and human rights story in their families,” she said. “It might not be you, it might not be your parents, it might not be your grandparents, maybe it’s your great-grandparents, but think about what economic and/or human rights protections happened in generations past and how that shaped your ability to be in this room today.”