Global Policy Forum

Impunity for Multinationals


By Anne Marchand

September 11, 2002


Multinational corporations formed a large presence at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. They were the principal sponsors of the Summit, and they unrelentingly expressed their desire to contribute to an ecologically, economically, and socially viable planet: holding conferences, interviews and on-site visits. Absolutely omni-present in this young South-African democracy that has transformed itself without transition from an apartheid regime into the most offensive liberal one, multinationals emblazoned their slogans all over the Earth Summit and even in schools ("This school is sponsored by Coca-Cola", etc etc), health centres, new business centres, cultural centres - no public space was sacred.

No constraints for free enterprise in terms of social and environmental responsibility: such in any case is what would have been decided by the heads of state and governments meeting in South Africa. In particular, the negative impact of multinationals is having more and more a devastating effect on both working conditions and in the environment. Nonetheless, they remain subject to no control or regulation. No less than a quarter of the planet's economic activity is in the hands of 200 companies who hold themselves accountable to no one but their shareholders. But what about the people who live in the states or territories where they operate? How do they weigh in? To which courts do they address their complaint? The international scope of multinational activities is often effectively a guarantee of immunity.

At the initiative of GroundWork, an NGO affiliated with Friends of the Earth, several people from Malaysia, America, Mozambique, and South Africa came to tell their stories about how multinationals were impacting on their lives, and to publicise their particular struggles. There were many examples. Let's look at two. First the disposal of refuse in the middle of a South African township. Run by SITA, an affiliate of the French conglomerate Suez, the township unknowingly accepted a quantity of toxic waste, mostly medical, in complete disregard for the welfare of the township's inhabitants, especially children, who were exposed to poisons and used syringes.

The response at the Summit to this and other complaints was to reassure by denying the dangers involved. "What made the biggest impression on this affair," remarked Laura Morosini of Friends of the Earth, France, "was the total collusion between South African public agencies and the multinationals." There was no mention of these activities in South Africa at the SITA booth at the Summit. Enjoying a very solid reputation as an environmentally conscious company, this Suez affiliate has formed partnerships with many environmental groups in France.

In Sasoburg, South Africa, the multinational in question is Total-Elf-Fina. In this city of refineries under the name of the South African oil company SASOL, gasoline is carbon-based. The reason that South Africa began to produce this kind of fuel, which is the most polluting kind that exists in the world, is because the Apartheid regime needed to produce its own fuel as a result of world embargoes. Almost 10 years after the ANC took power, production continues to the detriment of the health of its inhabitants and the environment itself. Total/Elf/Fina cut production by 50% in one of its refineries. Last year, an explosion paralysed production for a while, causing a gasoline shortage in the whole country. The first workers' barracks in the townships are 50 meters away from the refineries. These barracks are exposed to the elements, and the skies are often covered by clouds of pollution from the refineries. "It's often impossible to breathe, people suffocate, coughing fits are common," reports Laura Morosini. "According to the residents, on top of the chronic pollution these periodic clouds of pollution make it very difficult to live." In the wake of skin and respiratory diseases, the residents of Sasoburg organise and protest against the corporation. Its response: "water vapour".

The residents of Sasoburg have now formed the "Bucket Brigade." Armed with a bucket especially constructed for this purpose, they use a small pump to capture air samples from the area, which are then taken to a team of researchers for analysis. The formal verdict: the air is heavy with benzene, a particularly toxic substance.

The residents of Sasoburg are fully counting on not letting the matter rest, and they are already planning to organise networks with others, just like what some African-American communities are doing who also live very close to polluting factories. Together they hope to launch an international appeal so that multinationals will be held responsible for the impact of their activities on the populations of the South.

"It's possible today to have double standards", points out Laura Morosini, "ie different rules for different states, different territories. As soon as these corporations, wherever they are, develop the same type of activities, it would be normal to have standardised worldwide regulations governing that sector." But for now, what will stop multinationals from keeping the North "clean" and the South "dirty"? And how do we put an end to double standards? For example, while consumers in Great Britain can organise boycotts and actions against such-and-such a label, what can workers in the South do against manufacturers or oil-producers whose product is usually reserved for export? The means cannot be the same. In the absence of international regulation, the recourse to justice is reserved for countries where civil society is sufficiently organised, where a state based on rights exists, and/or where jurisprudence can evolve. As it stands, the terrain is open to all kinds of predations, without controls and accountability.

In Nigeria, a relatively economically strong country, the GDP is $99 billion. The net worth of Exxon is $119 billion.

"When multinationals have a net worth higher than the GDP of the country in which they operate, what kind of power relationship are we talking about?" asks Laura Morosini. "It's disquieting to see States giving up their powers little by little, closing their eyes (and opening their pockets) to the promises of enterprises." In Johannesburg, Europe and France have already refused to support a proposition, made by developing nations collectively known as « the 77 », to institute an international framework for multinational accountability. For almost a year now The UN itself has undertaken to identify corporations who commit to being socially and environmentally responsible. A weak guarantee given by government officials to multinationals who, in any case, keep gaining more and more leverage in international negotiations.

But there is good news. Since last March, seven peasants from Cameroon, supported by Friends of the Earth and The Sherpa Association, are suing the French Rougier Group and its affiliate in Cameroon, SFID, in France. They accuse SFID of "illicitly pillaging the forestry resources to the detriment of the people". More specifically, SFID stands accused of "destroying the assets of others, forgery and using forgery to secure these assets, swindling, possession of stolen goods, bureaucratic corruption". This could sound the death knell for the age of the impunity of multinationals if solidarity can be forged between consumers in the North and workers in the South, and if the WTO doesn' t triumph on the backs of states and their elected officials.




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