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Activists Take New Tack to Promote Human Rights
Published on Sunday, May 26, 2002 in the The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va
Activists Take New Tack to Promote Human Rights
by Rick Mercier
 

A FEW HUNDRED years from now (if our species is still around), people will look back on our time, note the nearly unchecked power we granted these entities called corporations, and wonder: What were folks back then thinking?

Why in the world, they'll ask, would anyone want to allow these unrepresentative institutions to have so much control over life on this planet? And why would people demand so little from them in the way of accountability?

Fortunately, though, we do seem to be taking a few baby steps in the direction of sanity.

One of those small steps will be taken Wednesday, when Amnesty International's first-ever shareholder resolution is voted on at ExxonMobil's annual meeting. Ten other co-filers have teamed up with Amnesty on the human-rights resolution, including the New York City Teachers' Retirement System and the AFL-CIO. California public employees and New York City police also have committed to voting in support of the shareholder action.

Noting that ExxonMobil "operates in several countries where allegations of serious human rights violations have been made," the resolution calls on the oil giant to adopt a "human rights policy which shall include an explicit commitment to support and uphold the principles and values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (To view the rights resolution and three other environmental and social-responsibility resolutions, visit www.campaignexxonmobil.org/shareholder/2002_resolutions.shtml.)

While shareholder activism is new to Amnesty, it's a tactic whose popularity has grown by leaps and bounds among nongovernmental organizations in recent years. "NGOs have become much more sophisticated in incorporating shareholder activism" into their repertoire, says Simon Billenness, senior analyst at Trillium Asset Management, a Boston-based socially responsible investment firm and co-filer of the ExxonMobil human-rights resolution.

Ten years ago, Billenness says, Trillium would initiate shareholder resolutions; five years ago, groups would approach the firm for help in doing shareholder activism. Now, organizations such as Amnesty and Greenpeace are buying stock in companies for the express purpose of filing resolutions.

"Even though the shareholder resolutions rarely pass and are nonbinding, they do have a track record of pressing companies to do the right thing," Billenness says.

As an example, he points to the case of Sun Oil Co., owner of Sunoco gas stations. About 10 years ago, shareholders first asked the company to adopt a set of environmental guidelines known as the Ceres Principles. A shareholder resolution on the matter failed to pass, but management looked at the principles and realized they were pretty sensible, so Sun Oil decided to endorse them--the first company to do so.

Shell Oil and BP have already implemented human-rights policies based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, rights activists have ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, in their sights.

Amnesty has been working for several years with ExxonMobil and other oil companies to develop comprehensive rights policies, says Mort Winston, who heads Amnesty International USA's Business and Economic Relations Group. But ExxonMobil, whose operations in places such as Indonesia, Chad, and Cameroon have raised serious human-rights concerns, hasn't exhibited "any real movement" on rights issues, so Amnesty opted to file its resolution, Winston says.

Amnesty's foray into shareholder activism reflects the group's recognition of the ascendancy of global corporate power. By putting corporate complicity in rights abuses on the same level as state-sponsored repression, Amnesty positions itself to better face the human-rights challenges of the 21st century.

And by taking the battle for corporate accountability to the boardroom, Amnesty and other NGOs have figured out a savvy way of achieving progress in this newly reconstituted nation of shareholders.

RICK MERCIER is a copy editor and columnist for The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2002, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

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