By Kim Todd
In ExxonMobil's recent quarterly report on its Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, the company indicated that one of its subcontractors in Chad had not complied with standards set for the project. But because the report required only minimal details, no one knows exactly what the problem entailed or how it affected the local environment and indigenous people in the area.
"We don't know if it was a chemical leak or if they cut down too many trees, nor do we know what was done to correct it, or prevent problems in the future," said Sam Parry of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment program. "At the same time, the fact that ExxonMobil is filing quarterly reports on their Chad-Cameroon operations proves that such reporting is not too onerous."
Incidents like this underscore the need and opportunity for better disclosure and accountability by U.S. multinational corporations as they spread their operations across the globe.
To combat these abuses, the Sierra Club has signed on, along with 200 other organizations from the AFL-CIO to the Sisters of the Holy Cross, to a campaign to get the United States to enact an International Right to Know law. This proposed legislation, drafted by the coalition, would require U.S.-based companies like ExxonMobil to release as much information about their international operations as they do about their domestic projects.
It would give environmentalists in Nigeria and Sumatra, Chad and Cameroon the tools they need to protect their communities.
International Right to Know is based on the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, passed by Congress in 1986. It requires that companies operating in the United States disclose information about use, disposal and release into the environment of toxic and hazardous chemicals.
The new law would also include provisions of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Public disclosure of security contracts, displaced communities, natural resource use and local environmental impacts would also be required.
But the push for an International Right to Know bill is in the earliest stages. This fall, the Human Rights and the Environment program is focused on building a network of activists fired up about global issues, creating demand for the kinds of accountability a right-to-know law would provide.
The target is young people who seem to have an affinity for international concerns, according to Alejandro Queral, associate representative with the Human Rights and the Environment program.
"Students understand the issue of globalization better than anyone else we've seen," he said. "They're excited about it and they're willing to put in the hours to educate other people."
With this in mind, the cornerstone of the effort is a Sierra Club ad campaign targeted at young people, designed by the company that did the "Rock the Vote" ads for MTV. Ads highlighting International Right to Know will appear throughout the fall in alternative weeklies and campus newspapers in 10 different cities: Boston, Portland, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Houston, Madison and Ann Arbor.
Interested activists will have access to organizing tools, from factsheets to a video and a Power Point presentation. For activists in affected countries, though, a right-to-know law would be the ultimate tool in an activist's kit.
"It's going to allow the people on the ground to tell their own government, 'We're worse off with this project than we were before,'" said Queral.
Take Action: Launch or join an International Right to Know network in your community. As a first step, write your members of Congress to urge their support for International Right to Know. For more information about becoming a Human Rights and the Environment organizer, contact Sam Parry at (202) 547-1141; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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