London Olympics Further Tainted by Dow Chemical

Activists and survivors of the 1984 Bhopal disaster

Activists and survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster demonstrate. (STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Since we last told you about Dow Chemical’s controversial Olympic sponsorship, things seem to have only gotten worse for Dow Chemical – from a public relations perspective anyway. Along with Dow Chemical’s horribly insensitive comments, the increased media attention has only revealed additional ethically troubling business practices.

The International Olympic Committee and games’ organizers continue (for now) solidly and uncritically back Dow as a sponsor, despite harsh criticism from Amnesty and others. But if Dow Chemical was hoping that it might benefit from the benevolent glow of the Olympic spirit of international goodwill, the past few weeks have not been kind.


Corporate Accountability Comes Before the U.S. Supreme Court

By Erica Razook, Amnesty’s Business and Human Rights Group

Members of the Ogoni community outside of the Supreme Court, February 28, 2012. Esther Kiobel, center.

Esther Kiobel is a person.

The bright sunlight that washed the steps of the US Supreme Court on Tuesday did not compete with her radiance, the resolve of a widow, a survivor. Outside the court, her eyes searched unquestionably and steadfastly for justice.

In January 1995, when she visited her husband Barinem in a Nigerian prison to bring him some food, she was stripped, beaten and thrown into a cell herself. In November that year, Barinem was executed alongside eight other activists from the Ogoni region of Nigeria, provoking widespread international condemnation of the country’s military rulers.


Don't Mine Us Out of Existence

UPDATE: Apparently the tribes in Orissa have asked James Cameron, the director of record-winning film Avatar for his assistance in stopping Vedanta’s operations.

UK-based company is destroying the environment of indigenous people in Orissa.

Help to save lives in the Indian state of Orissa.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the plight of Adivasis in Orissa.  Well, we’ve done a report that has documented one such case in much more detail.

Dongria Kondh women at a protest meeting, Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India, 2009

Dongria Kondh women at a protest meeting, Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa, India, 2009. Copyright: Amnesty International

Indian authorities have given local communities little or no information about the potentially disastrous impact of a proposed aluminum refinery expansion and mining project to be operated by subsidiaries of UK-based company Vedanta Resources in the eastern state of Orissa.

We document how an aluminum refinery operated by a subsidiary of UK-based FTSE 100 company Vedanta Resources in Orissa is causing air and water pollution that threatens the health of local people and their access to clean drinking water.

Adivasi, Dalit, women and other marginalized communities in the remote part of Orissa where the refinery is located have described to us how authorities told them that the refinery would transform the area into a Mumbai or Dubai.

The Orissa State Pollution Control Board (a state government agency) has documented air and water pollution from Vedanta Aluminum refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa. The pollution threatens the health of local people and their access to clean water yet there has been no health monitoring.

Despite these concerns and the environmentally sensitive location of the refinery near a river and villages, the government is considering a proposal for a very large expansion of the refinery. Neither the Indian authorities nor Vedanta have shared information on the extent of pollution and its possible effects with local communities.


Exploitation in the DRC fuels mining trade: Apple, Dell look the other way

Prominent US and multinational companies such as Apple, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, and Hewlett-Packard are among the businesses pinpointed as culprits in an unflinching, new report released by Global Witness that details the often noxious connections between the illegal mining trade, widespread human rights abuses and tech and mining firms.

The detailed analysis provides excellent current background on the situation, and names the names of companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that trade in minerals in ways that ignore corporate social responsibility and perpetuate the conflict.

High-tech human rights abuses

The illegal mining and horrific human rights abuses against civilians – including the use of child soldiers and sexual violence as a weapon of war – have previously prompted a UN Expert Panel review that resulted in a large number of companies reforming their activities or leaving the country.  Yet the new Global Witness report is clear: “no effective action has been taken to stop this murderous trade.” Global Witness states that it is not calling for a complete trade embargo or targeting artisanal mining per se, but is focusing on stopping the mining intertwined with conflict and abuse.

In many ways, the DRC’s plight hearkens back to colonialism and chartered companies empowered to make war in order to capture resources.  But today’s neo-colonialism is more indirect and up-to-date, being linked to some of the world’s most sophisticated new technologies.  The minerals cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan are important components in cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, and the DRC is a primary global source.

Violations in the region have continued despite the recent rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda and the integration into the Congolese army of one of the leading rebel groups (the Congrès national pour la défense du people, or CNDP, whose leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court).  Both the army and remaining rebel groups such as the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are implicated in the illegal mining and abuses – even cooperating at times with each other as well as with the companies to share the spoils.  Rule of law in the DRC is either weak or, in many provinces, effectively absent.

The new report states that the named companies exploiting this lack of oversight had almost no controls or due diligence processes to ensure that their supply chain contained no conflict minerals.

Global brands such as many of these companies  participate in industry initiatives including the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct which require them to hold suppliers to high standards.  Yet “suppliers” has often been interpreted to apply to middlemen but not suppliers further down the supply chain.

Apple’s stance leaves much to be desired

When questioned about these specific practices and their obligations to uphold certain standards, companies generally pointed to generic corporate social responsibility statements.  Only in rare cases did companies seem to recognize the need for greater due diligence.  In most cases, no sense of urgency or clear commitment to applying checks to the entire supply chain was expressed.  Instead, companies relied frequently on the fact that they purchased from licensed exporters.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, Global Witness Director Patrick Alley stated:

It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups. The failure of governments to hold companies to account, of Burundi and Rwanda to restrict the trade across their borders, and of donors and diplomats to address explicitly the role of the mineral trade, have all contributed to the continuation of a conflict that has killed millions and displaced many more.

Apple’s response was a bare bones reference to its supplier responsibility policy (via a web link that no longer works).  Nokia, at least, gave the more commendable explanation that while it purchases raw materials through suppliers rather than directly, this “does not change the fact that we have the responsibility over everything that goes into making a Nokia product.”

Hewlett-Packard has room for improvement

Hewlett-Packard’s response shows similar progress in understanding the issue, with the company explaining that it has focused on first-tier suppliers where it thinks it “has the most influence” (an assumption that may be questioned when the underlying harms and their locations are considered).  But HP has successfully reached down to many second-tier suppliers as well, via its first tier suppliers (who have told HP that DRC coltan is “not used in their products supplied to HP”).  HP presumably does not merely accept such assertions (which would be akin to the U.S. government accepting diplomatic assurances that the countries to whom it sends terror suspects “do not torture”), but audits them to some extent.  And HP has the reputation of being better than most companies at such audit processes, stating that it is working with the first-tier suppliers of notebook computers to “map their supply chain down to the extractives level.”

Lukewarm responses Motorola and Dell

The responses from Motorola and Dell were in-between the extremes represented by the nonchalant reply from Apple, on the one hand, and the more detailed and responsive replies from Nokia and HP, on the other.  Motorola and Dell stated that they require high standards in their supply chains, expect their suppliers to do the same, and participate in industry initiatives to that end.

Moving toward real social corporate responsibility

Laudable industry initiatives such as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) do aim to enhance traceability of minerals beyond supplier certifications to the actual mines involved, but thus far have failed to change what Nokia rightly calls a status quo that is “not  . . . acceptable.”

The continued corporate role in this conflict remains shameful and underappreciated but fundamental.  The new Global Witness report usefully reawakens slumbering attention, and clearly demonstrates the need for strengthened accountability mechanisms that truly end what the report calls “the impunity protecting those engaged in illicit mineral exploitation and trade.”

In addition to illustrating the grave risks faced by the extractive industry and companies active in conflict situations, the new report provides sensible recommendations for direly needed urgent actions by governments, corporations, individuals, the UN, and the international community at large to finally call a halt to the ongoing tragedy in the DRC.

Chip Pitts is a lecturer at Stanford Law School, former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia Inc., and former Chair of Amnesty International USA.  He is the co-author and editor of the new book, Corporate Accountability: A Legal Analysis (Lexis Nexis 2009); all the royalties from book sales will benefit human rights and sustainability charities.

Ads in Fake New York Times Tell Truth About Business & Human Rights

In the fake July 4, 2009 edition of the New York Times distributed yesterday, pages were filled with stories many hope will one day be true – ending of war, healthcare for all, and accountability for past transgressions of the US administration. It also included “ads” for real companies that spoke tellingly about the often capricious, opportunistic corporate approach to social responsibility and respect for human rights.

An “ad” for ExxonMobil states “Peace can also be lucrative”; a De Beers “ad” explains how purchases of diamonds will go towards prosthetics for Africans whose hands were lost in the brutal diamond conflicts.

The messages in these careful, clever ads were both optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, corporate responses to their human rights impacts are often only skin-deep. On the other hand, there are real opportunities for us as conscious citizens of the world to press companies to do the right thing; where there’s a market, there’s a way.  Just check out the McDonald’s “ad”, which exclaims, “we’re lovin’ revolution”. If we lead, companies will follow.

While human rights obligations should never be contingent on a company’s ability to turn profits, as the KBR “ad” explains, “if you make it law, we’ll make it work”.