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Repression, Inc: The Assault on Human Rights

by Julie LightCorpWatch
February 4th, 1999

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 violence.

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 Issue 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 rights.

"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 CorpWatch.

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 CorpWatch, 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.

-- Julie Light, for CorpWatch Editorial Board