When multinational corporations embrace a commitment to Human Rights the test is not (only) the immediate check as to whether such a commitment gels with their history and their current behaviour but also how they respond when the circumstances change in one of their areas of operation. So as the eyes of the world are on Pakistan at the moment and we are all asking whether the livelihoods and security of the millions of innocent citizens in that benighted country have been better protected by General Musharraf’s “second coup” it is also reasonable to look at the response of the many multinationals operating there particularly those, like Shell, which have boasted a commitment to Human Rights.
The imposition of virtual martial law in Pakistan has been condemned by the respected “Human Rights Commission of Pakistan” as well as by opposition parties, lawyers and other Human Rights groups in the country and abroad. So in the circumstances what do corporations, like Shell, say or do? Clearly an over precipitate reaction would help nobody but if, as is likely, the restrictions on opposition and the suspension of legal restraints on Musharraf’s Junta continue, and all democratic processes are suspended, can a company which has so openly embraced Human Rights credibly remain silent?
Words are cheap and of no value unless they stand for more than just self-promoting hype. Shell Pakistan is a significant player in that country’s energy sector and has declared that it has “Business Principles” which are to: “… conduct business as responsible corporate members of society, to comply with applicable laws and regulations, to support fundamental human rights in line with the legitimate role of business, and to give proper regard to health, safety, security and the environment”. So what will Shell Pakistan do or say now that “fundamental human rights” have been suspended? If it is argued that for commercial reasons they should do nothing then one must question what the point of the Human Rights commitment was in the first place. There is no obligation on Shell in Pakistan, or anywhere else, to make a Human Rights commitment. But if they have chosen to do so it is reasonable to ask what this really means when political circumstances change so radically that individuals’ freedoms are threatened – as is presently clearly the case in Pakistan.
Will Shell condemn the suspension of Human Rights in Pakistan referring to their published commitment of support for the principle such rights and to the company’s general support for the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”? Don’t hold your breath!