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The Planet
March 1999 Volume 6, Number 2

Human Rights Activists Target Corporations, Governments

by Sarah Clusen

Like many Burmese refugees living in Thailand, Ka Hsaw Wa fled his homeland during the bloody crackdown that followed the popular uprising in 1988.

Over the next 10 years, he noticed a trend in the stories of other refugees: Environmental destruction and the suppression of human rights went hand in hand. Logging roads through the Tenasserim Rainforest not only allowed for the forest's exploitation, but also gave the military access to resistance headquarters. People were forced at gunpoint to work on a natural-gas pipeline built for California-based Unocal oil company. Many refugees died of exhaustion and disease; others were shot trying to escape. Women were routinely raped.

It was this connection between human rights and the environment that brought together over 50 environmental activists, including Ka Hsaw Wa, for a roundtable discussion entitled "Forging New Links: Promoting and Protecting Human Rights and the Environment" at Sierra Club headquarters on Jan. 14. Participating groups included the Sierra Club, Amnesty International USA, the Center for International Environmental Law, EarthRights International (which Ka Hsaw Wa founded), Human Rights Advocates, the Natural Heritage Institute and the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development. Each has received a grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to work on projects that address human rights and the environment.

Activists discussed their organizations' priorities and explored ways to work together in the coming years. For example, three of the groups are joining forces to encourage California-based companies to adopt corporate-accountability charters.

Dr. Owens Wiwa, brother of the late author and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, spoke at the roundtable on behalf of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, openly opposed Royal Dutch Shell's destruction of Ogoniland and was executed by the Nigerian military government on Nov. 10, 1995. While practicing medicine in Ogoniland, Dr. Wiwa documented environmentally related diseases among the Ogoni and treated hundreds of environmentalists tortured by the Nigerian military.

"For more than 100 years we've been organizing activists in North America to protect the environment," said Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Club's International Program. "We are teaming up with Amnesty to protect the rights of people worldwide to organize to speak out on behalf of the environment. Part of our plan is to focus on companies like Unocal and Shell that believe they can pollute just because they're not operating in the United States." The program will also push the U.S. government to play a stronger role in defending human rights.

"It's time for U.S. foreign policy to reflect American values, not just corporate values," said Mills.

For more information on the Sierra Club and Amnesty International USA's joint program, "Defending the Defenders," please contact Stephen Mills at or (202) 547-1141.

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