In the past, oil and mining corporations have been criticized for their complicity in human rights violations related to their business operations in certain countries. The operations of Shell and other firms in the Niger Delta in Nigeria is the most well-known example, where the definition of human rights abuses includes torture, the razing of communities and murder by the hundreds. As a step toward ending the violations, oil and mining companies and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have developed voluntary guidelines, backed by the U.S. and British Governments, regarding corporate conduct.

“The fact that all sides have agreed on these guidelines shows what can be achieved when industry, NGO’s and governments work together,” said Robin Cook, the British Government’s Foreign Secretary. “Now we must ensure that they are put into operation effectively,” he added.

The voluntary guidelines aim to lower the possibility of human rights violations arising from oil and mining companies’ legitimate security requirements. The major issues addressed by the guidelines are oil and mining company risk assessment methods, the relationship between companies and host government security providers, and the relationship between companies and private security firms.

Oil and mining companies face complicated and difficult circumstances when they do business in certain regions of the world. In some cases, the companies are operating in communities that have major development needs. While the companies see the hardships faced by the communities as a responsibility of the government, they often make substantial investments in development projects.

Problems sometimes arise when the communities feel that the companies are not contributing enough. The communities make demands, and if these demands are not met, protests may ensue. The government then steps in to repress these protests, and sometimes human rights abuses occur.

In other cases, government forces are unable to protect corporate staff and physical assets, so oil and mining companies must hire private security firms. The conduct of these firms has on occasion fallen far short of internationally recognized human rights standards.

Discussions to formulate the principles began in February 2000. In addition to the U.S. and British Governments, seven companies, eight human-rights and business organizations and one union were involved in the process.

The seven companies included Royal Dutch Shell Group, BP Amoco PLC, Texaco Inc., Conoco Inc., Chevron Corp., Freeport McMorRan Copper & Gold Inc., and Rio Tinto PLC. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and International Alert were among the human rights organizations, and business organizations included Business for Social Responsibility and the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union represented trade unions.

Participating human-rights organizations welcome the guidelines, but believe more work needs to be done. “In an area where no standards exist, we see the development of some guiding principles as a positive first step,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “But this is only the beginning of the process. The business, human rights and government communities all still have a lot of talking to do.”

While the companies participating in this initiative are expected to follow the guidelines, there are no plans for official monitoring. Nevertheless, human rights organizations will continue to keep an eye on corporate practices. Interested social investors may wish to make a mental note of the participating companies, and observe how well those firms follow the guidelines in the future.