Thoughts after hearing from Amnesty International

On July 16, WSIC welcomed guest-speakers Freddy Osorio and Shanaaz Gokool from Amnesty International.

As we all know, A.I. deals with human rights issues of many types, affecting people all over the world. This night, our subject was the impact of First World corporations on people in Third World countries. While the problems may be happening far away, these corporations are right next-door.

Victims of the Bhopal disaster at the Union Carbide plant in India are still awaiting their promised compensation while Canadian owned Barrick Gold is fighting off allegations of gang rape and violent abuses at a mine site in Papua New Guinea.

Some companies really want to do better, said Freddy. Some don’t. There are no international standards for corporate accountability.

Many questions followed. The first came from Craig, who wondered if the behaviour of Canadian firms overseas correlated with their behaviour here at home. Freddy replied that it often doesn’t—companies operating in Third World nations often benefit from cozier relationships with governments, allowing for an unhealthy degree of influence over local policy.

Peter wondered where the World Bank fit into this. The speakers replied that the World Bank had its own rules in place, and was neither responsible for the way corporations act globally, nor doing anything to improve the situation.

Hanna lamented the role so many of us unintentionally play in supporting bad companies. She is a pension-holder—for her it seems impossible to invest without holding shares in companies with dubious global records. How can she as a shareholder with a miniscule investment let the board and fund managers know that an ethical investment is important to her?

Acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, Freddy pointed out that it is CPP’s role to speak for Canadians’ investments. Write to CPP. They have a voice, even if you don’t.  Another audience member who has worked with executives in her coaching business pointed out the power of shame.  A Norwegian pension fund was forced to dump it stake in a Canadian mining company because of human rights concerns.  Although we may feel powerless, shame has been an important tool in the human rights battle.

This world is build on intentions, good and bad. Some people lose track of the big picture, because they’re too fixated on the bottom line. They need someone else—individuals, organizations, governments—to rein them in. But they can change.  The message from the evening is that change needs public action.  Please help spread the word about your own concerns about human rights abuses.

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