Latin American Report
Oil Companies Face Human Rights Abuses
Wednesday, 28 April 1999
By Martha Bellisle
LOS ANGELES -- Human rights activists in the United States and abroad increasingly are calling upon the world's major oil companies to leave oil-rich regions where tales of torture and disappearances flow as freely as crude itself. Recent activism includes a campaign by women's groups to stop the construction of a pipeline in Afghanistan, a lawsuit against a California oil company's practices in Myanmar and protests over the deaths of three activists, including Terence Freitas of Los Angeles, in Colombia.
This week in Los Angeles, a Colombian Indian tribe and its supporters will ask Occidental Petroleum Corp. shareholders to consider an ultimatum: drop drilling plans on their tribal land or they will commit mass suicide by walking off a 1,400-foot cliff. At Friday's meeting in Santa Monica, shareholders will face the protesters' demands and vote on a resolution -- written in part by Freitas before he was killed by Colombian guerrillas in February -- that calls for a study on how opposition by the 5,000-member tribe could affect profits. Los Angeles-based Occidental opposes the resolution, saying it has acted as "a model corporate citizen in Colombia for 30 years.''
Appealing to stockholders is just one of a growing number of strategies used by activists to influence the behavior of oil companies, said Arvind Ganesan, an analyst with Human Rights Watch in New York.
"It's an industry under pressure on human rights now,'' Ganesan said. "Shareholder meetings are a good forum to air these kinds of concerns.'' Although most oil giants refuse to pull out of troubled regions, some are responding with new corporate human rights policies, he said. "Companies are realizing that, because of the reputation hit they can take in an environment of low oil prices, it's not in the company's best interest to have a human rights problem,'' Ganesan said.
Freitas was a longtime U'wa supporter who worked to keep Occidental from drilling on tribal land. His organization, the U'wa Defense Working Group, contends that oil brings violence: Guerrillas target pipelines and surrounding villages and governments respond by militarizing the regions.
"Oil always brings an ugly transformation of the culture and almost always brings violence,'' said Robert Benson, a Loyola University law professor, who heads a group seeking to bring state pressure on companies.
In a petition filed last week with state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Benson's group asked the state to revoke the corporate charter of El Segundo-based Union Oil Company of California, or Unocal. Benson claims that in Myanmar, Unocal has forced villagers to relocate and used forced labor to build the company's infrastructure. Unocal denies the allegations. Mike Thacher, a Unocal spokesman, says the company is a solid corporate citizen. Just this year, it formalized a corporate position on human rights, he said.
"The bottom line is, we respect human rights in all of our projects,'' Thacher said. "This includes our investment in Myanmar and it would have included any investment in Afghanistan, had we had one.''
In December, Unocal withdrew from a plan to build an $8 billion pipeline through Afghanistan. Feminist groups had criticized the company over the project, which required working with the Taliban, an Islamic militia whose interpretation of religious law has forced women to wear an all-enveloping veil and banned women from work and girls from school. Thatcher said the company withdrew over concern that there "was not a stable government in place that was recognized by the U.S.''
Unocal was the only major U.S. company still in Myanmar after Atlantic Richfield Co. ended its natural gas exploration there last year. Arco, based in Los Angeles, also contended its retreat from Myanmar, ruled by a military government accused of human rights abuses, was a business decision that had nothing to do with human rights.
But human rights may be playing a bigger role in company policies. Chevron faced a shareholder proposal in 1997 asking the board to develop guidelines for working in countries with ongoing human rights violations. Shareholders have, also without success, made similar demands of Royal Dutch-Shell over its drilling operations in Nigeria. Although the proposals have failed, Shell has altered its approach to human rights issues, said spokeswoman Cerris Tavinor, in a phone interview from the company's office in London. In the past two years, Shell has consulted with human rights groups and adopted a human rights policy, Ms. Tavinor said.
"We do withdraw if violence occurs and we have canceled contracts if we're not happy with the other participating groups' behavior,'' she said. However, Ms. Tavinor acknowledged that the Nigerian government makes its own decisions about "protecting strategic installations.''
"We can't control any government anywhere,'' she said.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press