Amnesty to ExxonMobil: Do the Right Thing(Archive)
The year 2001 marks Amnesty International’s 40th anniversary. It is also a milestone year for Amnesty International USA; earlier this year Amnesty USA filed its first shareholder resolution. The resolution asks ExxonMobil to adopt a “human rights policy which shall include an explicit commitment to support and uphold the principles and values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
To understand the history behind the resolution, I caught up with Mort Winston, Amnesty USA’s former Board Chair and current head of its Business and Economic Relations Group (BERG).
According to Mr. Winston, Amnesty has long understood that economic globalization has shifted power away from governments and increased the impact of corporations on human rights. Since the early 1980s, Amnesty has asked corporations to avoid complicity in abuses of human rights. However, it was not until 1995 that Amnesty started to systematically expand its program of “corporate engagement.”
In early 1996, Amnesty USA hosted a meeting at Glen Cove, Long Island, with representatives from 20 other Amnesty country sections. At the meeting, Amnesty set a plan for its corporate engagement work. The organization would beef up its staff support in London and membership groups in different countries would start approaching energy and mining corporations asking them to adopt a voluntary code of conduct that included an explicit commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Some companies soon started to see the light. In 1997, Shell adopted a human rights policy based on the UDHR. BP followed suit in 1998. Later, mining companies Freeport McMoran and Rio Tinto came on board.
According to Mort Winston, there is however a “transatlantic divide.” Western European corporations are more ready to accept their responsibilities regarding human rights. Amnesty felt it needed to do something to move U.S. corporations forward. To intensify its engagement with American companies, Amnesty USA decided to explore a new form of activism: shareholder resolutions.
Since 1994, Amnesty USA has screened out of its portfolio companies inappropriate for a human rights organization. In 1998, Amnesty published its “Human Rights Principles for Companies.” Mort Winston moved Amnesty USA further by drafting a policy for the organization to buy stock in certain companies to enable it to file shareholder resolutions.
In 1998, Amnesty USA joined Trillium Asset Management in a dialogue with Mobil over the company’s operations in military-ruled Nigeria. In that dialogue Amnesty requested that Mobil take up the case of two political prisoners: Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi, two imprisoned leaders of the Nigerian oil workers unions. When Mobil failed to take up the men’s case, Mort Winston represented Amnesty at the company’s annual shareholder meeting where Trillium Asset Management moved a resolution on Nigeria.
Amnesty continued dialogue with Mobil after its purchase by Exxon. However, after the merged company ExxonMobil failed to adopt a human rights policy, Amnesty USA decided it was time to file a resolution.
Mr. Winston expects that Amnesty USA will gradually expand its use of resolutions in collaboration with other concerned investors. “The social contract between business and society is being re-negotiated. Global corporations need to understand that they can no longer afford to shirk their responsibilities regarding human rights. We see shareholder activism as a means of bringing this message directly to corporate boardrooms.”
ExxonMobil should take heed. The American oil company may be able to stay ahead of its global competitors; however, Amnesty International may well represent one international organization that could hold the oil giant accountable.