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Oil companies must be made to follow UN on human rights

The Independent: Oil companies must be made to follow UN on human rights

“Shell and BP the leaders in building a human rights responsibility into their business principles and recognising that explicit adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

LETTER From Sir Geoffrey Chandler

United Kingdom; Aug 27, 2004

Sir: As oil prices reach new heights it would be as well to realise that stability of price and security of supply will be achieved not by the geographical diversification of sources, but by political justice and economic equity in the producing countries. Unfortunately it is the former course that consuming countries, with the US in the lead, appear to be pursuing.

Nearly 70 per cent of the world’s proven reserves of oil and gas lie in countries with poor human rights records. The growth of oil wealth has fuelled the ability of governments to invest in armaments and to transform small-scale corruption into personal or political gain on a scale hitherto undreamt of. The contrast between oil wealth and national poverty is nowhere more evident than in Angola and Equatorial Guinea, countries which may be considered secure from the turbulence of the Middle East.

While governments which have a responsibility for the protection of human rights under international law, companies have an inalienable responsibility for their impact on the human rights of their employees and of the communities in which they operate. This has now been recognised by some oil companies, with Shell and BP the leaders in building a human rights responsibility into their business principles and recognising that explicit adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is necessary to avoid the accusation of complicity with oppressive governments. These companies, however, remain the in minority and market forces do little to increase their number by rewarding the better performers.

The recently developed United Nations Norms for the human rights responsibilities of companies now offer an opportunity to extend the influence of market forces by providing criteria against which company policies and performance can be judged. They set out principles, based on the Universal Declaration and allied instruments, which any civilised society can expect its companies to observe.

The Norms fall short of the regulatory framework which will ultimately be needed to make trans-national business adequately accountable, but this is many years away. The current version also requires its language and purpose to be clarified. But as a clear set of principles, visible to investors, consumers and the public at large, against which company performance can be judged, the Norms could have an immensely beneficial impact in assisting the creation of a level playing field for good companies and improving the performance of the bad. The formal endorsement of such principles by the UN will now depend on governments’ and companies’ capacity for statesmanship in supporting them.

Sir GEOFFREY CHANDLER

Dorking, Surrey

The writer, a former director of Shell International, was Founder-Chair of the Amnesty International UK Business Group 1991-2001

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