Table “Corporation Crackdowns: Business Backs Brutality”
Source Dollars and Sense, May/June 1999
Author Arvind Ganesan
Faculty Evaluator Albert Wahrhafitig Ph.D.
Student Researcher Cassandra Larson & Melissa Bonham
In the name of commerce, huge multinational corporations collaborate with repressive governments, and in the process, support significant human rights violations. Corporations often argue that their presence and investment will improve human rights. This practice is referred to as “constructive engagement”. Major international energy corporations such as Mobil, Exxon, Enron, and UNOCAL have engaged in major business ventures in countries known as major human rights violators. Major U.S. governmental grants, as well as corporate capitol investment, have funded the suppression of media, political opposition, and personal rights in Turkmenistan, India and Burma. The myth of “constructive engagement” has failed to improve human rights, and yet has been endorsed both by international corporations and the U.S. government. Since the release of this information, BP Amoco and Statoil have taken positive steps toward addressing human rights issues. Programs are being developed in the U.S. and abroad to deal with the conduct of energy companies globally.
From looking at the mainstream media coverage this past year, it would seem as if the big-name oil companies had begun to take responsibility for their actions. But things are not always as they seem. Thanks to the Internet and its ability to publish information quickly and globally, environmental and human rights activists were able to make issues known faster than previously to a larger number of concerned people. In an internet-enabled world, a big-name brand can be sullied almost overnight. This fact, combined with community demonstrations against corporations and media discussions of corporate actions, caused many multinationals to “spin” their companies and add environmental and community-involvement agendas to their overseas policies.
Take Royal Dutch Shell, for example. In an article in The Washington Post, the corporation claimed that, because of their recent losses in court disputes and public knowledge of their human rights abuses overseas, they had adopted a new code of ethics for dealing with repressive governments. However, a senior Shell executive, who refused to be identified, said that Shell’s policy is now withdrawal from communities where trouble follows their presence, not for any stated humanitarian reasons but because of their fear of repressive governments. In the spirit of “constructive engagement,” Shell claims to also be fostering human relations with people in the communities where they are involved by sponsoring development projects, providing schools, and giving drugs to hospitals. They have also allowed activist groups to become involved in their planning process and now publish an environmental annex to their annual report.
In a July U.N. meeting, chief executives from 50 multinational corporations, including BPAmoco and Royal Dutch Shell, met with environmental organizations to pass the U.N. Global Compact. The compact lists universally recognized and specific labor, human rights, and environmental policies to which the corporations promised to adhere.
Yet it is doubted by some whether the Global Compact will realize any real changes. According to Phyllis Bennis, an analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies, the pact “…allows some of the world’s biggest violators of core rights to use the U.N. logo to blue-wash their image.… There is no enforcement mechanism. The human rights and labor organizations that participate in the compact don’t even play a monitoring role.” Many key advocacy groups in the fight against corporations, including Greenpeace International, refused to participate in the process.
While the mainstream news sources focused on corporate attempts to “blue-wash” their images, alternative, industry, and foreign news services continued to document human rights and environmental violations. EarthFirst! reported on almost daily widespread oil spills in Nigeria despite Shell’s promise to correct environmental mistakes. Dispute continues over whether or not the problems are due to aging pipelines or sabotage from project protestors. And with a key court case against it dropped, Enron has moved forward with its controversial project in Turkmenistan.
The mainstream media, in fact, has well nigh ignored Enron’s environmental and human rights activities, even domestically. In a flagrant disregard for environmental issues, it is allowed to continue to operate a highly polluting Houston methanol plant because of a grandfather clause in the 1971 Texas Clean Air Act that former Texas governor and now-president George W. Bush extended in 1999. Enron, curiously enough, was the biggest financial backer of the Bush campaign-this does not bode well for the future regulation of the petroleum industry abroad.
Sources: Oil and Gas Journal, November 1, 1999, “Petroleum and Human Rights: The New Frontiers of Debate,” by John Bray; The Progressive, September 2000, “Meet Enron, Bush’s Biggest Contributor,” by Pratap Chatterjee; EarthFirst!, September/October 2000, “Nigerian Military Opens Fire on Youths After Shell Oil Spill,” by Felix Tuodolo; Houston Chronicle, January 28 & November 18, 2000; Newsweek, January 31, 2000, “Ubiquity and its Burdens,” by Michael Hirsh and Kenneth Klee; The Washington Post, July 27, 2000.