Corporations struggle to answer global protests

At violent protests in Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa last July, the behavior of multinationals was a rallying cry for a body of causes, from the plight of world's poor to destruction of the environment.

September 25, 2001

Corporations struggle to answer global protests
Patrick Chalmers

KUALA LUMPUR - Branded villains by anti-globalization protesters, many of the world's largest companies are casting around for a fitting response.

But they are finding it tough.

At violent protests in Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa last July, the behavior of multinationals was a rallying cry for a body of causes, from the plight of world's poor to destruction of the environment.

Many companies are worried the protests will get worse, especially if the attacks on Washington and New York hurt the global economy and pull the world into conflict, leading to greater unemployment and other cutbacks.

"We have got to work out how to deal with them," said Richard Sykes, group environmental advisor for Anglo-Dutch oil firm Shell International BV. "And to me it's not obvious how you do it."

But the array of causes emblazoned on the banners of angry marchers - such as poor country debt, sweat-shop labor, human rights and the perceived hand of business in thwarting climate change action - has made it hard to forge coherent replies.

Executives tackled the topic at a recent meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in Malaysia, whose Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has voiced sympathy for some issues raised by protesters.

Participants came from the coalition of 150 global firms in the council, a body styling itself as a leader in
"eco-efficiency, innovation and responsible entrepreneurship".

"We think that the violence is totally crazy, however, we think that the protests are not all irrational," said Al Fry, a World Business Council program manager.

"Although there's a wide spectrum of protests, and sometimes internal conflicts within these movements, there are some serious and genuine concerns. Most of these protesters are not crazy."

Shell is one of several high-profile multinationals that has been singled out by demonstrators.

It came under criticism in 1995 for its part in Nigeria's oil industry at a time when writer Ken Saro Wiwa and eight fellow activists were hanged on disputed charges of murder.

Saro Wiwa's organization had campaigned against Shell, arguing the oil industry had devastated his native Ogoniland and left its people in poverty.

That same year Shell came under fire for trying to dump its underutilized Brent Spar oil installation at sea, sparking consumer backlashes in Europe before it backed down.

"We took a year out to understand society's changing expectations and why we'd gone wrong," Shell's Sykes told Reuters on the sidelines of the WBCSD meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Shell's apparent change of heart has seen it join fellow oil major BP in backing the Kyoto protocol to limit the emission of climate warming greenhouse gases.

Exxon Mobil Corp, meanwhile, which has rejected the Kyoto approach on climate change, faces a boycott by an alliance of environmental groups based mainly in Britain.

Campaigns targeting the environmental, social and human rights records of companies have mushroomed since 1999 when thousands of protesters took to the streets in Seattle outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), claiming free trade hurt workers and the environment.

Trade ministers who are to pick up the pieces two years later at November's WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, may meet against a backdrop of what anti-globalisation activists say will be a world day of action.

Anti-globalization demonstrators have also vowed to disrupt a meeting of Commonwealth leaders next month in Australia, which is scheduled to host up to 50 heads of state.

At a WBCSD closed-door session in Kuala Lumpur dubbed "Battles in Seattle to demos in Doha - What is the business response to anti-globalization?" executives engaged in some soul searching to find a response.

Fry, the WBCSD program manager, said slow progress on debt forgiveness and WTO deals favoring rich or rapidly developing countries were among issues that have enraged protesters most.

Shaun Stewart, international and government affairs advisor at mining giant Rio Tinto, said no company appeared to have built a workable strategy response.

"There was no evidence of any company having done that," he said after chairing the session.

He warned that September 11's attacks on New York and Washington, the week of the WBCSD's meeting in Kuala Lumpur, could bring an economic downturn which in turn could spur more anti-globalization sentiment in the longer term.

"I would think we are going to probably see more rather than less of it," he said.

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