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ARTICLE BY FORMER ROYAL DUTCH SHELL EXECUTIVE, PADDY BRIGGS: The myth of Corporations’ commitments to Human Rights

Wikipedia image of former Shell Executive Paddy Briggs 

Friday, September 28, 2007
Business and Human Rights

The myth of Corporations’ commitments to Human Rights

“Shell supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and believes that business, as an integral part of society, can make an important contribution to furthering these rights”. Shell statement

“Business doesn’t have to choose between profits and principles, Royal Dutch/Shell Group Managing Director Jeroen van der Veer told the Globalisation, Ecology and Economy conference in the Netherlands today.”

“We have to be particularly attentive to our contribution to local economic and social development and to human rights issues.” Christophe de Margerie, Chief Executive Officer: Total

The focus of the attention underway at present on the grotesque abuses of Human Rights in Burma has rightly drawn attention to the part that the Oil company Total plays in shoring up the appalling regime in that benighted country. Total is heavily involved in Burma – especially in a major pipeline project – and you need to be terminally naïve to think that such investment does not give support and comfort to the Burmese dictators. That a multinational oil company thinks that it is acceptable to be active in Burma is deplorable – even more so when you see the self-promoting statements saying that they are “attentive to human rights” as in the recent remarks of the company’s CEO.

If the dark arts of Public Relations are to have any moral underpinning then the contradictions between rhetoric and actions, such as those of Total have to be avoided. There is frankly no point in having your PR Department issue “commitments”, on the one hand, whilst your business managers go their own sweet way in ignoring these so-called assurances on the other. My experience in Shell, and I have little doubt that most oil multinationals are just the same, is that commitments to human rights are not worth anything at all. I could choose many examples to illustrate this assertion (Nigeria the most obvious) and which suggest that when push comes to shove the choice will nearly always be Profit rather than Principles – whatever Mr van der Veer and others might like to say. To be fair it is true that Shell has moved away from involvement in Chad, Cameroon, Peru and elsewhere partly because of concerns about the reputational damage which could have resulted. But these withdrawals are the exception rather than the rule. Back in 1991 EIRIS (Ethical Investment Research Service) stated that Shell was operating in 24 Countries where extra-judicial executions or disappearances had been reported, 44 countries where torture has been reported, 36 Countries where ‘official violence against citizens’ was reported, and 26 countries which were holding prisoners of conscience. Shell continues to operate in most of these countries today. To illustrate the dichotomy between rhetoric and behaviour let me choose two examples of which I have personal experience.


Back in the late 1980s I was working in Hong Kong and, increasingly, in China – and part of my job was to try and boost Shell’s brand and to advise on the avoidance of damage to Shell’s reputation. China was beginning to open up to the West and Shell was hungry for a piece of the action. Some of us in Shell felt that China’s pursuit of economic change would be accompanied by a change to the repression that had characterised the country for forty years or more – that the people would be given greater personal freedoms as well as greater wealth (we were wrong, of course). Others simply pursued the money and developed investment and other plans to be part of China’s economic progress. Amongst these was the Chief Executive of the Shell Companies in China and Hong Kong whose mantra was “China is very big” and who was determined to give Shell every chance to succeed – not for him any uncomfortable concerns about human rights! In the spring of 1989 the emerging democracy movement in China was brutally cut down when the tanks entered Tiananmen Square and it seemed for a moment that our Chief Executive’s dreams were likely to be shattered. He went into a sort of denial mode saying that as soon as things calmed down all would be normal again. Within a few months Shell was back at the negotiating table with Chinese officials as if nothing had happened in Beijing in April at all.

In August 1989, in an attempt to suggest that there were likely to be some squally waters ahead for Shell unless we acted with greater care and sensitivity, I wrote a mock newspaper article entitled “Do Tanks go well on Shell”. Here is the text of this mock article:

Do Tanks run well on Shell?

On Friday it emerged that Shell, the Anglo/Dutch multinational that is now the world’s largest energy company, is to invest over one billion US Dollars in a Refinery and Petrochemical complex in Southern China. Although officially only a commitment to a “Feasibility Study” at this stage, informed sources within the industry say that Shell is unlikely to proceed to this study unless they are fairly certain of a positive outcome. Observers of China say that such an outcome can be virtually guaranteed given the PRC Government’s wish to demonstrate to the world that the confidence of western business is returning following the political disruption in China earlier this year.

The Shell Group has had its share of controversy in recent years, not least because of its continued presence in South Africa. Shell’s role in sanction busting in Rhodesia is also not forgotten. Those with longer memories will recall the questionable role played by Henry Deterding (One of Shell’s founding fathers) at the time of the Nazi military build up in the 1930s. Despite this rather ignoble history the announcement of the Refinery plan comes as a surprise. The plan would be the largest foreign investment by far in China. For it to be announced (however much that announcement is covered in caveats) in 1989 seems insensitivity on a grand scale. Shell may believe (as one of their Hong Kong directors said) that “Business is separate from politics”, it is doubtful whether many of the people of Honk Kong would agree. Firstly the announcement of an investment of this size gives a signal to China that no matter what they do to their own citizens the international business world will turn a blind eye. Secondly the investment is unquestionably strategic in nature. By building facilities that will produce a full range of oil and chemical products Shell will play its part in ensuing that the People’s Liberation Army in the South of China does not fall short of the essential products it needs. (The refinery will also produce a wide range of materials that can be used in Chemical warfare, including Naphtha used with such devastating effect by US forces in Vietnam).

For Shell morality and business have always been uneasy bedfellows. Once again it seems that you can be “Sure that Shell” will pursue what it seems to be its commercial objectives and be deaf to public opinion”

This mock article was circulated only to the twelve members of our Hong Kong and China management team and was meant to stimulate thought. In fact a storm broke out and our CEO instructed me personally to get back every copy and to destroy them! It had struck too exposed and vulnerable a nerve and in the CEO’s view even to discuss the possibility that Shell might be criticised for being back in China in a big way just months after the Tiananmen Square massacre was unacceptable. The rest is history. Shell did pursue the project and although it changed radically in format, took far longer than was planned and cost far more construction was completed and commercial operations started last year. The “CSPCL Nanhai” complex at Daya Bay is, according to Shell, the largest single investment ever made by the Shell Group in the petrochemicals sector.

The point about this story is that although back in 1989 Shell did not have any open commitment to Human Rights it did institute such a promise in the 1990s and declare it openly. But notwithstanding this commitment the project went ahead in a country which has been accused of continued human rights abuses on a huge scale. My perhaps mischievous attempt to make us think about what we were doing way back in 1989 had little effect (other than to brand me as a trouble-maker in the eyes of some!). So you can imagine my scepticism when all the human rights commitment hype started to emerge from Shell Centre in the 1990s!

Saudi Arabia

In March 1997 Shell issued a “Statement of General Business Principles” (SGBP) to the world which included the following statement “…to express support for fundamental human rights in line with the legitimate role of business.” The launch of the SGBP was a much hyped event and the responsibility of those working in operating companies around the world was to promulgate them in the public domain. I was working in the Middle East at the time and part of my role was to communicate with “stakeholders” about Shell and try and enhance our reputation. I discussed ways to promote the SGBP with my management colleagues – including the production of local language (mostly Arabic) versions. I was a little way into my task when I received a phone call from the head of Shell’s businesses in Saudi Arabia instructing me not to promulgate Shell’s commitment to Human Rights in that country for fear of upsetting the rulers of this seriously human rights abusing state. “What should we say then?” I asked “That Shell supports human rights – except where it doesn’t because if we did our business prospects might be damaged?” Once again, as you might imagine, I got into a bit of trouble and the SGBP were never circulated at all in Saudi Arabia and a number of other counties where it might have damaged our business. Hypocrisy – of course! Profits before Principles – likewise!

© Paddy Briggs
September 2007

Paddy Briggs worked for Shell for 37 years during the last fifteen of which he was responsible for Brand management in a number of appointments. He was the winner of the “Shell/Economist” writing prize (internal) in 2001. Paddy retired from Shell in 2002 to form the brand consultancy BrandAware ™ and to write and speak on brand and reputation matters. He is also active as a director of training courses on brand and reputation management. Paddy is also an active sports journalist and a member of the “Sports Journalists Association” and the “Cricket Writers’ Club”. He has a regular weekly column in the “Bahrain Tribune” and was previously a columnist in the “Khaleej Times” and the “Emirates Evening Post”. In September 2006 he was appointed Sports Editor of “AME Info” the UAE based news and information website. Paddy’s book of light verse “Jumeira Jane” was published in Dubai in 2001 and the first edition print run of 5000 copies was sold out.

For Paddy’s website go to…

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One Comment

  1. David says:

    Sorry, but Mr. Briggs is not the self-righteous knight in shining armour he professes himself to be. He quotes reports from 1991 about human rights abuse? Where was he working then while accumulating his rich pension? Oh, it was actually Shell. The prime target of his tirade. Thirty seven years in Shell? It is 37 years of being a part of the alleged abuses he moans about. I am not, nor have been, a Shell employee. I do work for a big competitor of them. At least I do not profess to be Mother Theresa while collecting my pay check from Satan.

    Now go and put my view across and be fair and balanced which you profess to be.