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Critics Take Aim at US Firms Operating In Countries With Poor Rights Records

Human rights advocates say some U.S. companies doing business in countries with poor rights records are complicit in rights abuses. U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation that would require American companies operating overseas to uphold human rights standards. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The abundant natural resources in developing countries can offer the promise of economic development and prosperity. But they can also provide the opportunity for corruption, exploitation and conflict - as the unrest in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta illustrates.

Members of Congress are concerned that U.S. companies that do business in countries where there is unrest or human rights abuses could become complicit in those problems.

"When American companies choose to go to these countries, they assume a moral and legal obligation to ensure that security forces protect their operations and do not commit human rights abuses," said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate, who chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue.

The United States, along with Britain, Norway and the Netherlands, have established a set of standards to guide oil, natural gas and mining companies in maintaining the safety and security of their overseas operations within a framework that ensures respect for human rights and freedoms.

The so-called Voluntary Principles, established in 2000, aim to make companies better understand the environment in which they operate, improve relations with local communities through dialogue and uphold the rule of law.

But rights activists question the effectiveness of the guidelines.

"We do not really know whether the companies are fully implementing the Voluntary Principles, since there are no meaningful reporting criteria, no monitoring mechanism to assess compliance, and because at the end of the day, they are voluntary," said Arvind Ganesan, an official with Human Rights Watch.

Another rights advocate, Ka Hsaw Wa, executive director of EarthRights International and a Burmese activist who lives in Thailand, took aim at the U.S. corporation Chevron for working with the military-led government in Burma on the Yadana pipeline. "It is so incredible for me to see a U.S. corporation like Chevron is allowed to continue to contract with the brutal military. Thousands of Burmese soldiers in the area, the villages, along the pipeline route, commit human rights abuses against the local people," the activist said.

The Judiciary Committee asked representatives of Chevron to testify, but they declined.

Nnimmo Bassey, the executive director of Environmental Rights Action, a nongovernmental organization based in Lagos, Nigeria, called on the U.S. Congress to draft legislation to require companies to implement the Voluntary Principles. "I believe that the Voluntary Principles I have heard so much about should be made mandatory because industries are not as we have experienced are not willing to take voluntary action that diminishes their profit margins," Bassey said.

But Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Krilla argued otherwise. "Yes, companies must bear responsibility for their policies and practices, but it is governments that ultimately must held accountable. Transferring the enforcement obligation on to companies would only lead governments to expect that they can opt out of their responsibilities because companies would do the job for them," he said.

Senator Durbin says he will weigh all the testimony as he considers whether to pursue legislation that would call on companies to do more to protect human rights.