BP Amoco: "On the Side of Human Rights"

It is 50 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. Since then, it has become clear that human rights is no longer an issue just for nation-states and governments. Business, too, has a role to play. Chris Gibson-Smith, BP Amoco’s MD responsible for its policies, talked to Caroline Barrett about how BP Amoco is tackling human rights.

A mere "paper promise" is how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been described in the light of human rights abuses perpetrated since it was adopted.

Established in the aftermath of World War II, it was an undertaking by governments to work towards greater justice and peace. Despite its relative success, it has remained an important template from which international laws and standards have developed.

In 1993, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, over 170 states reaffirmed their support for the Universal Declaration, stating that "their [human rights’] protection and promotion is the first responsibility of government".

But there has been a significant shift in recent years. As companies have become more global and as consumers have adopted a more critical stance on the way business operates, it has become clear that human rights is not only an issue for nation-states and governments.

The world has changed dramatically in the last decade, says Chris Gibson-Smith, BP Amoco’s MD responsible for its policies. "The Cold War is over, many countries that were inaccessible are now open to western businesses, capital moves freely, and news moves even more so thanks to global communications systems."

As companies have found themselves in new places with new issues to manage, they have also found themselves under greater public scrutiny. Many have been the subject of adverse media and public comment as a result. BP Amoco in Colombia, Shell in Nigeria, and Unocal and Total in Burma have come under attack for operating in countries accused of human-rights violations. Clothing manufacturer Nike has been the subject of intense criticism over the labour practices of its contractors in Asia. Firms like Levi-Strauss and Carlsberg have also faced such issues in China and Burma.

"As human rights has risen on the corporate agenda, multinational businesses are realising that the successful company of the 21st century will be one that can manage its social and environmental performance as effectively as its business one," says Gibson-Smith.

Companies are also faced with a growing dilemma: how do they continue making profits without sacrificing their principles, and the principles of their employees and customers.

Sir Geoffrey Chandler, former senior executive at Shell and now chairman of Amnesty International’s UK Business Group, believes that companies - as citizens of the countries in which they operate - have a continuing opportunity to improve the situation in those countries. And it is in their interests to do so: "Companies have nothing to lose and much to gain," he says.

The gains are not just reputational. BP Amoco’s chief executive Sir John Browne argued in a speech to the Council for Foreign Relations last year, that societies where human rights are respected are good for business: "Open markets, the efficient production and use of natural resources in ways which pose no environmental threat, steady economic development and an open society - those are the conditions in which we can best pursue our business," he said.

"They run directly contrary, of course, to the common belief that companies find it easier to deal with the apparent stability of repressive regimes than to manage the uncertainties of democracy. In fact stability built on repression is always false. Sooner or later the waters break the dam."

Having accepted that there is a strong business case for promoting good human rights behaviour, BP Amoco is examining its own role in helping create the thriving, sustainable societies described by Browne.

Gibson-Smith says: "Ours is not the sole nor even the main responsibility in this regard.We’re not an elected government nor a non-governmental organisation (NGO). But we are in the business of global development."

The Vienna declaration states that "equality of opportunity for development is a prerogative both of nations and of individuals who make up nations", and that "the right to development is a human right".

Gibson-Smith adds that successful business provides the economic vehicle to such development: "Business has a key role to play. But it must do it responsibly - with economic development must come environmental stewardship and social responsibility."

This also means recognising that in certain circumstances a company’s operations can become the catalyst and excuse for conflict. BP Amoco’s operations in Colombia are an example, where the oil industry has been identified explicitly as a "military target" by guerrilla groups.

A recent pipeline attack by ELN guerrillas caused an explosion that killed over 70 local villagers, injured over 20 and left 10 missing. "With large numbers of people working in a violent part of Colombia, BP Amoco has required significant protection for its employees, contractors and facilities from Colombia’s security forces," says Gibson-Smith.

"From the start of our operations in Colombia, we have refused to pay the vacuna - the illegal ‘protection tax’ widely levied by the guerrillas on companies and individuals. This has doubly made us a target.

"Rather than pay this illegal ‘tax’, we have chosen to rely on the army and police - the legitimate forces of a democratically chosen government - for the protection of our staff and operations. This has necessitated direct agreements, convenios, with the army and the national police - the first of which was signed in 1995, when BP Amoco and its partners paid several million dollars directly to the army for its protection."

This arrangement attracted criticism - on the grounds that the Colombian army had a bad human rights record, and that BP Amoco could have no absolute certainty that the money would not be spent on lethal equipment. The issue of a private, foreign-owned multinational having a formal institutional and financial relationship with the country’s public forces also caused adverse comment.

"BP Amoco recognised that these were all entirely legitimate concerns and needed addressing," says Gibson-Smith. "We approached the NGO Human Rights Watch for advice on how any future convenio could be improved."

After months of discussions a new convenio was signed by state oil company Ecopetrol and the Colombian army - ensuring that the arrangements were between two government entities, not directly with BP Amoco. The new convenio contains an explicit commitment to the respect of human rights, and also incorporates an auditing mechanism to ensure that the destination of all financial support is known. It now stands as a benchmark for all other similar arrangements by private oil companies in Colombia.

BP Amoco has recently been accused in the UK’s Guardian newspaper of supplying arms to the Colombian military, and planning undercover operations via its security contractor Defence Systems Colombia (DSC).

"DSC supplies us with a small number of staff who are unarmed and coordinate our security arrangements. Their UK parent, Defence Systems Ltd is a respectable company supplying security services to a wide range of clients, including NGOs, several UN agencies and UK embassies," says Gibson-Smith.

"Just as in the case of allegations made against us in 1996, BP Amoco launched an internal investigation immediately. Although there was no evidence supporting the 1996 allegations, such allegations have to be taken seriously."

Colombia contributed to BP Amoco's re-examination of Human Rights within its business policies. In March this year BP Amoco launched a revised statement of the policies which included a commitment to support the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The company had started talking to Amnesty International about human rights in Colombia and China, among other countries in 1996. Since then it has also approached a number of international and local NGOs for their views in promoting human rights in Colombia. NGOs are not only "important social voices that reflect widely-held views of society," says Gibson-Smith. "They also act as the world’s conscience, and influence society." This process of engagement with NGOs has been extended to dialogue with human rights groups in other countries where BP Amoco operates.

The company’s experience in Colombia means that it is now much more explicit about the role of security," says Gibson-Smith. "We have adopted very clear security guidelines conforming to United Nations codes of conduct, and are also paying more attention to the relationship we have with our contractors - introducing tighter codes of conduct with them too."

But codes of conduct, he adds, are not in themselves enough. They must be backed up by an assurance process within the company and a way to verify that assurance process.

BP Amoco is now working to ensure that the lessons it has learned so far - particularly as far as security is concerned - are transferred throughout the organisation, and that auditing mechanisms are in place to ensure that human rights policies are strictly adhered to.

Guidelines to managers are being made more readily accessible via BP Amoco’s intranet system. A human rights web site carries UN and Amnesty International guidelines for business, as well as links to other company and human rights group sites. Work is also in progress to develop a management assurance system to ensure that BP Amoco’s social performance can be audited in the same way that its health, safety and environmental performance is audited.

"Assuring operations over which we have direct control is relatively straightforward," says Gibson-Smith. "But business interacts with society around it, with areas over which it does not have direct control. Increasingly it has been asked to exercise influence in a wider arena - over governments."

It would be wrong to claim that companies do not have influence with governments, he says. "But that influence is limited and must be used responsibly. In our experience, countries where there are problems with human rights are not afraid to talk about them, but they don’t want to be lectured.

"It is a very complex area, but since we have been engaged in the human rights debate, we believe we have established a clear position through speeches, conferences, meetings and our business practices. We are working with the United Nations and the World Bank on their Business Partners in Development programme, and we have taken part in two British government select committees on human rights.

"We don’t believe in business standing up and lecturing governments. What we do believe is that by engaging in the debate and by helping establish safe, stable and peaceful societies responsible business can promote good human rights behaviour. And where society thrives business thrives."

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