25 January 2003
An International Right to Know
1984, 40 tons of lethal gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in
Bhopal, India. Thousands of people were killed. The Bhopal disaster
led Congress to pass a law requiring companies to disclose chemical
emissions. But even though Bhopal was an overseas disaster, the
law it inspired applies only in the United States. Dangerous pollutants
are just one aspect of corporate behavior that can be hidden abroad.
Companies should have to make public information about overseas
activities that would be prohibited or subject to disclosure laws
new report by a coalition of environmental, labor and human rights
groups, including the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Sierra Club, Oxfam and
Amnesty International, argues for an international right to know.
The groups are not seeking new prohibitions on company behavior.
Instead they would require large companies that are traded on United
States stock exchanges and have significant international operations
to disclose information that could affect the communities in which
of report (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)]
group's model is the registry created by the post-Bhopal law, the
Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory. The database
has given communities a tool to measure and fight toxic emissions.
There has been a 50 percent drop in releases in the first decade
of the inventory, according to data from the E.P.A. The organizations
also cite the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as an example of a successful
tool to improve American business practices overseas.
has brought new scrutiny to the practices of multinational corporations.
Environmental, labor and human rights groups are using lawsuits,
good-conduct labels, public protests and other methods to force
or shame companies into better behavior. The idea of an international
right to know is a creative and, for the companies, a not particularly
burdensome new approach. American companies could still behave badly
if they chose to do so. The law does not prevent irresponsible mining
companies in Peru from spilling mercury on local roads, or toy makers
in China from employing children. But they would have to tell the
public about these practices, and let the market, and public opinion,
go to work.
and trade groups argue that such burdens would be onerous. In fact,
the requirements would apply only to very large companies, and many
of these would experience little difficulty. No American company
that offends American values should be allowed to do so in secret.