Thursday, February 26, 2009

Secret American Empire - Ch.59

Facing Our Fears

During that period in 2006 when I was exploring the impacts of NGOs on corporations, I joined a group of twenty-three men and women on the island of Martha's Vineyard for several days of meetings. The discussions were echoes, I believe of debates that raged in the colonies during the years leading up to the Revolution. Many colonists were terrified of the British; along with the “loyalists” or “Tories” they opposed taking action. “The British empire is just too big, too powerful,” they warned. “We'll lose and be persecuted for defying it.” The setting for those 2006 meetings, off the coast of Massachusetts, was auspicious, a sort of microcosm for today's larger world.

The Vineyard was once home to the large whaling fleet and became the eighteenth century's equivelent to the current Middle East and Amazon – a primary source of oil for American industries and homes. Like deserts and rainforests today, whale populations back then were devastated. The discovery of petroleum in nearby Pennsylvania offered a cheaper alternative and led to the collapse of the whale oil industry. In more recent years, this island gained a reputation as a playground for the famous: the Kennedy and Clinton families, actors, writers, and musicians. It served as location filming for the movie Jaws. By the time I arrived in 2006, it also reflected the ecological imbalance so common in our world. Overpopulated by deer, it became overrun by the dreaded Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks. I was told that many residents had contracted the illness. As a result, we were warned not to stroll through the lush grasslands or enchanted forests. “Best to view them from the safety of an air-conditioned car.”

Most of the twenty-three conferees represented nonprofits that received donations from our host, a wealthy philanthropist. They were dedicated to protecting the environment, endangered species, human rights, and issues around gender and health.

On a number of occasions I appealed to the participants to devote some of their efforts to bringing corporations around, using RAN as an example. I was shocked at the responses:

“Executives can't be trusted.”

“We stay away from the corporate world. Too corrupting.”

“Too powerful. We'll lose and be punished.”

“Extremely dangerous. Better not to take the risk.”

“Look,” I said. “Every one of you is involved in important work. But, in a way, you're applying Band-Aids. We're hemorrhaging badly, so we need Band-Aids, but unless we start curing the disease, the underlying cause, all the Band-Aids in the world won't save us. You're right to protect yourselves against corruption by corporations, but for heaven's sake, deal with them, map out a strategy.”

Mona Cadena, deputy director, western region, for Amnesty International, spoke up. “We at Amnesty agree. With over 1.8 million members in about 150 countries, we know the power of corporations. In fact, we buy stock in some of the worst offenders – enough so we can attend meetings and file shareholder resolutions requiring the companies to adopt human rights policies in every country where they work.”

Mona's willingness to speak out gave me heart.

Later, as we sat at a window overlooking a huge brackish lake separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a tiny sandbar, Mona talked about Tony Cruz. Amnesty's Corporate Action Network coordinator in California, he had engaged Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel and founder Jerry Yang in face-to-face exchanges at stockholder meetings, insisting that those companies stop aiding repression of free speech in China. In addition, more than forty thousand activists participated in online actions targeting the companies. “We haven't yet got either of them to take proactive stances,” Mona sighed, “but we did rate an article in Business Week and air time on some ABC stations. We know it's worth the effort. Pressure brings results.”

“RAN's done a great job,” Mila Rosenthal, director of the Business and Human Rights program at Amnesty, told me over the phone when I contacted her several days later. “Their work is very challenging. They have to force management to accept specific restrictions on logging. You might think that our approach, using shareholder resolutions, would e easier and that companies would see that commitments to respect human rights will benefit everyone. But still, we get a lot of resistance. ExxonMobil is a case in point...”

The oil giant, the largest energy company on the planet, has accumulated a record of human rights abuses in many countries. Amnesty zeroed in on Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Indonesia. “We saw how adamantly ExxonMobil resisted efforts to get them to clean up their act,” Mila continued. “We had our members deluge their CEO with postcards; we organized vigils, teach-ins, and protests. On Valentine's Day, we sent cards asking them to 'have a heart for human rights.' We formed coalitions with other like-minded shareholders.”

Together with the AFL-CIO, the Teacher's Retirements System of New York City, Boston Common Asset Management, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), and Interfaith Center on Corporate responsibility, and Walden Asset Management, they called on ExxonMobil “to adopt and implement a company-wide workplace human rights policy based on the 1998 International Labor Organization's Declaration of Fundamental Principles of Rights at Work (ILO Declaration) and prepare a report available to shareholders concerning implementation of this policy.” After filing this resolution, the coalition met with corporate officials. ExxonMobil agreed to include a statement supporting the ILO Declaration in its Corporate Citizenship Report. At the 2004 annual shareholders meeting Chip Pitts, then chair of the board of Amnesty International, warned that coalition members would hold the company responsible for its promises

“We didn't get everything we wanted,” Mila admitted to me. “But we've made a good start. Our organizations learned a great deal. We will change these guys – one company at a time.”

The meeting on Martha's Vineyard at first frustrated me because so many there had succumbed to corporate intimidation. Yet I also developed a greater appreciation for Amnesty and the other organizations that, like those Americans at Bunker Hill, are facing their fears. By standing up to the corporations, they inspire all of us. I knew that hearing Mona speak out must have convinced one or two of the Tories to take heart.

- pages 298-301, The Secret History of the American Empire, by John Perkins

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