International Corporate Crime

from Corporate Watch

by Julie Light


As the saying goes, "all politics are local." But all politics are also increasingly global, as
local communities make the links between day to day survival and the transnational
nature of corporate power. With free trade replacing the cold war as the driving force in
international politics, a series of problems--the widening gap between rich and poor,
environmental ruin and cultural destruction can all increasingly be traced to
corporate-led globalization. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that human rights
abuses, once committed primarily by repressive governments, are increasingly carried
out in the corporate interest. "Free" trade and economic globalization have no more
brought freedom and democracy to most of the world's people, than did the cold war
before it.

Written in the aftermath of World War II, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights
speaks eloquently to the need for individual rights and freedoms, including the right to a
decent standard of living, access to healthcare, housing, education and a social safety
net. The declaration also opposes slavery, torture and racial, gender, religious and other
forms of discrimination. Fifty years later it is still remarkably on target.

However, the framers of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights had a blind spot
when it came to corporate crime. They drew up the declaration on the heels of major US
and European corporate collaboration with Nazi Germany. As the "Harsh History"
section of this Feature documents, Nazi collaborators included big corporate names
such as Ford, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank, Siemens, Bayer and
Volkswagen. Since that time, many corporations have continued to be intimately
connected with human rights abuses. ITT and others helped overthrow democracy and
install the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile; numerous companies supported South African
Apartheid; Union Carbide's record in Bhopal is frequently described as corporate

Despite this sordid history, it has only been in recent years that transnational
corporations' complicity with human rights abuse has come under more systematic
scrutiny. The international press, citizens' movements and traditional human rights
organizations have sounded the alarm on a series of cases. Among those we cover in
this Feature are labor abuses in global sweatshops, oil and gas companies' complicity
with brutal military regimes in countries such as Burma, Nigeria and Indonesia and the
growing prison industry in the United States.

But the issue does not stop there. The Universal Declaration can no longer stand alone
as a human rights guidepost. Increasingly, human rights advocates, from the grassroots
to the United Nations are moving to include environmental and cultural protection, a
broader vision of gender equity and indigenous peoples' rights as universal human

"If a woman's farm land, or a fisherman's waterways are polluted - if they don't have fish
to catch, if their crops no longer grow-- you have violated their rights to life," notes
Nigerian human rights activist Oronto Douglas. In the Niger Delta and elsewhere "a
strategic response (to human rights abuses) should collectively advocate the aspirations
of indigenous peoples in their demand for ecological integrity," he explains.

Meanwhile, the onslaught against human rights is increasingly perpetrated by the
institutions of globalization such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and
the World Trade Organization. This system, as we argue in the "Globalization" section of
this Feature, puts corporations' freedom to trade and invest above people's basic
freedom and governments' will to enforce human rights. Or as Human Rights Watch
researcher Arvind Ganesan puts it, "governments ignore human rights in favor of
perceived trade advantages."

Therefore, as human rights advocates begin to address corporate crime, they often do
so in the absence of any serious government support. As a result, they are tempted to
fall back on voluntary codes of conduct adopted by the corporations themselves. At best,
this self-monitoring represents "enlightened self-interest" by companies looking for a
stable investment climate. At worst, it is nothing more than a public relations ploy which
can set back human rights by providing corporations with cover from public scrutiny. In
either case, companies are usually more motivated by their bottom lines, than
humanitarian interests. And that makes the free market and its corporate agents rather
dubious guarantors of human rights.

Whether voluntary codes of conduct advance human rights, are an intermediate step
toward deeper change or just window dressing, is a topic hotly debated by human rights
advocates, labor groups and grassroots movements.

Such debates are by no means new. The Sullivan Principles, put forward in 1977 by
former civil rights activist and General Motors Board member Rev. Leon Sullivan, were
voluntary codes of conduct for corporations doing business in apartheid South Africa. In
the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s critics argued that the economic benefit that
corporations provided apartheid far outweighed any cosmetic civil rights practices they
might voluntarily enact. "The Sullivan Principles revealed the corporations' absolute
unwillingness to do anything fundamental about challenging apartheid," Africa Fund
Director Jennifer Davis tells Corporate Watch.

The post-apartheid government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission concurred that
"constructive engagement" by foreign companies was a travesty. Sullivan himself
continually revised and eventually abandoned his own principles as ineffective. At the
same time, they provided a focal point for students, church and community groups
seeking to debunk the myth of constructive engagement and argue for economic
sanctions against South Africa.

The South Africa experience has proven critical to the movement for democracy in
Burma in the 1990's. "We are inspired by the previous generation of activists who used
divestment to help South African majority black communities to bring justice to their
country." observes Zarni, an activist with the Free Burma Coalition.

In response to organizing, city and state governments throughout the U.S. have passed
anti-apartheid style selective purchasing ordinances targeting corporations doing
business with the Burmese Junta. As a result of this and other efforts, the free Burma
movement has won significant victories including agreements by Pepsi, Apple
Computers, Liz Claiborne, Motorola and even oil companies like ARCO and Texaco to
pull out of the country.

However, selective purchasing came under fire in 1997 when the European Union and
Japan, prompted by pressure from their corporations, used the World Trade
Organization to challenge a Massachusetts law. But before that dispute was settled, a
US federal judge struck down the Massachusetts selective purchasing legislation upon
challenge from the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) - a U.S. corporate lobbying
group. While the US court ruling is on appeal and the WTO case on hold, both
challenges are potentially severe blows to local efforts to reign in corporate complicity
with human rights violations. As Boston congressman Byron Rushing who authored the
Massachusetts law put it, "If selective purchasing had been banned ten years ago,
Nelson Mandela might still be in prison today."

As always, it is a David and Goliath battle. Many, like Human Rights Watch's Arvind
Ganesan favor some sort of international body that will monitor and regulate corporate
activities around the globe. Others, like Ward Morehouse and Richard Grossman of the
Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy argue in a piece they've written for
Corporate Watch, that what needs to happen is a redefinition of human rights as the fight
for self-governance.

Movements for human rights and democracy in countries such as Burma and Nigeria
are fighting precisely for self-governance. Last year's massive grassroots outcry against
IMF austerity measures in Indonesia also focused on this fundamental question.
Responding to IMF attempts to prop up the economy for foreign investment, these
protests helped trigger the downfall of notorious human rights villain, President Suharto.
As a result, Indonesia has been forced to consider giving up its hold on East Timor,
although so far the country's murderous military maintains control.

Meanwhile, Washington will not begin to put human rights front and center in its foreign
policy without consistent pressure from US citizens. Building a movement for human
rights and self-determination at home and abroad is a formidable task in the face of the
disproportionate influence that corporate dollars have in U.S. politics. One hopeful
approach to addressing U.S. corporations' human rights abuses overseas is embodied
in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles on behalf of Burmese citizens which seeks to hold
UNOCAL accountable for its continuing complicity with human rights violations in
Burma. Another initiative seeks to revoke UNOCAL's corporate charter for human rights
and environmental violations in Burma and in the US.

Other inroads against corporate human rights abuses come when citizen's movements
in the North and South join forces as the Burma and South Africa movements have
shown. For instance, turning point in the anti-apartheid movement came when residents
of Harlem protested against Citibank and Manufacturers Hanover, which were redlining
the African American neighborhood in New York at the same time they were making
multi-million dollar loans to the South African government.

When students challenge university investments in companies doing business with
Burma's Junta, they also raise issues of democracy and decision making on their own
campuses. Efforts by community coalitions to get local governments to enact selective
purchasing agreements with companies doing business in Nigeria exert local,
democratic control over rights that corporations are attempting to extract into the global
arena. When the same corporation that downsizes at home is operating sweatshops in
Mexico, Saipan or China it's not hard to figure out where the common interest lies. When
citizens' groups act on these common interests across borders, they begin to truly
challenge corporate and government collusion to deprive them of their most basic
human rights.

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