WASHINGTON - The intersection of human rights, the environment and corporate responsibility was highlighted today at a Capitol Hill hearing featuring activists from Burma and Nigeria who underlined the failure to date of "voluntary" controls over major oil companies operating in their countries.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), activists Ka Hsaw Wa (a pseudonym) and Nnimmo Bassey joined Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch and Bennett Freeman, who works for the Calvert Group, but was one of the architects of the "Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights" established for the extractive industry in 2000.
The Voluntary Principles (VPs) were developed in hopes of calming the waters in countries where multinational companies extract oil, gas and other minerals at great profit, but at a terrible cost to human rights and local environments.
Through the VPs, corporations are offered guidance about local communities where they will be working, and are expected to ensure that their rights are not violated as a result of the activities they undertake.
However, after the launch of the VPs in 2000, under the George W. Bush administration, the process "drifted without clear direction", Freeman said.
Since then, he added, the principles "have become a lightening rod in the debate of the credibility of voluntary approaches to U.S. regulation." At present, no credible mechanisms for accountability or reporting exist, making it impossible to monitor progress or adherence to the principles.
Freeman, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Jeffrey Krilla, acknowledged that lacking support from and oversight by the governments involved, initiatives such as the VPs are likely to be ignored by all concerned.
Recent experience in Burma and Nigeria attests to this trend, according to testimony by speakers from these countries.
The U.S.-owned Chevron Corporation has a contract with Burma's military junta to provide security for its operations along the vast Yadama pipeline area, which carries Burmese oil through neighboring Thailand for export to the US.
Ka Hsaw Wa, founder and director of Earth Rights International and recipient of several prestigious awards for his work, detailed gross violations of human rights documented when he and his team spoke to dozens of villagers along the pipeline.
Rape, even of young children, is not uncommon, the activist said. Local people are used as forced labour, and are prohibited from farming their own land without "permission" from the military, usually tied to a financial or material contribution, such as a chicken, Ka Hsaw Wa said.
"It is amazing to me that a U.S. company is allowed to contract with an army that commits these kinds of abuses with impunity," he testified.
"In countries like Burma, they just don't care," about protecting rights or respecting "voluntary principles", the young activist declared.
A booklet prepared by his organization, "The Human Cost of Energy", points out that Chevron has yet to say a word about the beating and shooting of Buddhist monks demonstrating against the military regime this time last year, despite the serious violation of human rights involved.
"The principles have yet to take root in Nigeria," agreed Nnimmo, who heads up the country's Environmental Rights Action group, allied with Friends of the Earth International.
Since oil began to be extracted in the Niger Delta 50 years ago, the police and military, acting on behalf of the government and Shell Oil, have consistently ignored or violated the rights of local communities, he said.
The first documented massacre of 80 people took place in 1990. During the mid-1990s the military killed hundreds of Ogoni people and nine Ogoni leaders, including internationally known Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been protesting environmental damage by oil companies and demanding compensation.
In 1998, the Ilaje people began to protest the destruction of their environment by Chevron's oil exploration, which had killed the fish the remote community relied on for food. The incursion of salt water into rivers also destroyed vegetation and drinking water supplies. The custom of gas flaring creates health hazards and burns homes.
When a group of unarmed protestors occupied an oil platform to demand compensation, as well as jobs and medical assistance, Chevron called in the military, which came in shooting and arrested and tortured village leaders.
"After 50 years, these companies are still not willing to sit down and enter into dialogue with communities," Nnimmo argued.
A court case for damages against Chevron by Nigerian Larry Bowoto and other Ilaje victims is still ongoing in U.S. federal court and in California state courts, where the plaintiffs seek an injunction to prevent Chevron from further "complicity' in abuse by the Nigerian military.
Discouraged by the picture painted during the hearing, Sen. Durbin declared that the government must take stronger measures to ensure that US companies are not engaging human rights abuses and promoting the "devastating" environmental impacts described by the witnesses.
He more than once noted the coincidence of human rights abuses and environmental impact, since in both Burma and Nigeria, U.S. corporations not only ignore, or are complicit in, standard forms of human rights abuse, but at the same time are responsible for environmental damage that causes people to lose their health and livelihoods.