Who really rules our world?

Feature story - 19 August, 2002
As government leaders meet in Johannesburg for the second Earth Summit, we have to ask why they are bothering. If you wanted to make some changes on Sesame Street, wouldn't it make more sense to invite the writers and puppeteers to meet, rather than just the puppets? The real environmental destruction today is done by multinational corporations, which can simply move operations if one government becomes too difficult. What international body oversees them, or sets rules for their behaviour, or holds them accountable when they transgress?

We are selling out our planet´s resources to the highest bidder, it is high time we put some strict conditions on it.

Corporations' shameful practices are being exposed, but it's not just their shoddy accounting practices. Corporate crimes extend to murders, destroying habitats, threatening indigenous cultures, causing disease, contaminating the planet's food supply and even destroying the very air we breathe.

You think this is an exaggeration? Well consider this.

In Bhopal, India more than 8,000 people died in the first three days after 40 tonnes of lethal gas spilled out from Union Carbide's pesticide factory. People woke in their homes to fits of coughing, their lungs filling with fluid. 520,000 people were exposed to poisonous gases. 150,000 victims are chronically ill, and even now one person dies every two days.

And corporations are not only taking advantage of people in the developing world. In the UK, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. dumped approximately 182 kilograms of plutonium into the Irish sea over the last half century. Lobsters from the Irish sea and the Norwegian coast have tested positive for high levels of radioactive contamination. Would you let your children play in these waters? What about eating the fish?

It is no longer just the conspiracy theorists who believe our world is increasingly ruled and ruined by large multinational corporations.

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago…

world leaders tried to avert the impending clash between globalisation and environmental ethics. Governments emerged with a plan outlining how to solve the planet's problems of environment and development. They agreed to develop national and international laws on liability and compensation for victims of pollution and other environmental damage. But what has happened in the ten years since then?

Environmentalists have played the role they were assigned, arguing with governments over articles and clauses in treaties emerging from the Earth Summit which, in the end, will make little difference to the health of the planet. Meanwhile corporations have stolen the power, played up their environmental values to the public while turning up the effluent pipe in the backyard.

The World Trade Organisation has supplanted environmental treaties and regulations. Corporations have become accountable only under the rules of a free market, free trade and a free for all on human rights and the environment.

The spirit of the Rio summit has not only been lost, it is working in shackles in a polluted multinational factory.

The state of our environment has not improved, in fact it has deteriorated. The gap between the world's rich and poor has widened. Instead of providing developing countries with the tools for sustainable development, corporations have pushed their dirty technologies and polluting industries on to some of the world's poorest communities.

Governments in Rio did not get corporations under control…

instead they opted for a voluntary approach to sustainable development. We need only look at the recent corporate accounting scandals to know that voluntary measures don't work when money is involved - and polluting the planet has been a very profitable business.

A recent UN report revealed that Exxon, with $63 billion, is worth more than Peru or New Zealand. General Electric more than Kuwait. Shell is worth more than Morocco or Cuba.

In the past ten years, corporations have not only resisted environmental challenges, they have lobbied to water down international treaties and even succeeded in getting countries to pull out of environmental agreements altogether. They have maintained their unsustainable practices in all sectors and it is clear that we need more than just voluntary measures.

And now we sit on the verge of the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, knowing that the world's governments will mumble vague commitments to saving the planet which they do not intend to implement. And this really is our

…last chance to save the planet.

A recent report by WWF states that if we continue at current levels of consumption we will use up all of the Earth's resources within 50 years, and we will need two more planets to meet our resource needs. We either take urgent action to save the planet, or we get off.

The UN Environmental Programme agrees that "the state of the planet is getting worse." They say "there is a growing gap between the efforts of business and industry to reduce their impact on the environment and the worsening state of the planet."

At the root of our environmental problems are the unsustainable practices of the corporations that shape our economies. But what is the good of a healthy economy if we can't drink the water, eat the foods in the fields or breathe the air?

Corporations need to be held accountable for their actions that are destroying the planet, destroying people's lives around the globe.

There is only one answer. We must stand up to the corporations. Our governments must agree on international, legally binding rules for corporate responsibility, accountability and liability: a set of rules that business must follow, and governments must enforce.

The list of rules is long, but so are the crimes.

The world needs corporations to be held accountable to the following laws - and held accountable to these laws no matter where they operate in the world:

  • Accept liability for environmental damage and compensate victims of pollution;
  • Accept liability for the damage no matter when it happens, what the cause or who in the corporation is responsible;
  • Accept responsibility for damage and injury beyond national borders including accidents in the oceans and atmosphere;
  • Ensure that they do not infringe upon basic human rights;
  • Disclose all information regarding releases into the environment to the public;
  • Protect human and social rights including the highest standards for rights to health care and a clean environment;
  • Avoid influence over governments, combat bribery and practice transparency;
  • Allow states to maintain their sovereignty over their own food supply;
  • Implement a precautionary principle and take preventative action before environmental damages or health effects are incurred; and
  • Promote and practice clean and sustainable development

    In short, corporate criminals must own up, clean up, and pay up.

    Over the next week we will present some of the world’s worst corporate criminals and we could use your help tracking them down and enforcing environmental protection. Tomorrow, find out why Michael D. Parker is wanted for the deaths of over 20,000 people and what he could do to atone for his crimes.