HUMAN RIGHTS: PART OF DOING BUSINESS OVERSEAS

HUMAN RIGHTS: PART OF DOING BUSINESS OVERSEAS

Along with protecting the environment, the realization of human rights has become the new global ideology. In their own interest, international corporations should try to keep abreast of rights abuses in a host country and avoid taking comfort in neutrality.

As other ideologies decline, the concept of human rights has taken on independent momentum. Defined in a minimalist way, these rights involve ''due process'' in a system of even-handed, institutionalized justice. Punishment must be prescribed and not arbitrary.When American businesses run afoul of human-rights protests, trade sanctions and the complicity of their people with a host government's repression, it is inexorably because they are in denial about the importance that they as individuals ascribe to certain basic values. They cynically persuade themselves that they have adapted to the prevailing local culture.

In some cases, corporations have been sucked into the local system because they have failed to set standards. Their own marketing personnel have been lulled into a myopia that has blinded them to the legitimate interests of many less articulate, oppressed communities and their capacity in the longer term to affect political outcomes.

Getting along with the political authorities might not be enough. Foreign corporations ought to consider opening channels to their workers and immediate communities. A policy of laissez-faire must be tempered by the realization that local citizens may see them as adhering to a double standard: one for themselves and one for the ''poor deprived common men'' of the developing host country.

The American businessperson does not have to be the handmaiden of the political system just to turn a profit.

In the case of the Dabhol Power project, Houston-based Enron Corp. became party to the abuse of local people's rights in India in the late 1990s. Villagers' petitions and demonstrations near the work site ranged from the need for transparency, to the demand for Enron's contribution to development infrastructure, to environmental impact.

State security forces beat people, detained them for further physical abuse, made mass arrests, usually arbitrarily; except for a couple of minor pieces of sabotage, such demonstrations were believed to be peaceful.

The forces denied them their right of free assembly. In some cases, suspected protesters were rounded up in advance of an anticipated demonstration.

Enron was not simply a victim of circumstance, forced to defer to the supremacy of the authorities. It had let itself become a passive participant.

Enron's subsidiary had paid the state security forces for providing guard. It should have had some control over them. On the contrary, management would not hear the appeals of demonstrators about violations and sometimes had those who questioned them arrested. Contractors at the projects were reported to have organized systematic harassment of activist villagers.

Further, Enron might have avoided the misuse of law against local people if it had implemented an effective community-relations strategy from the start.

Perhaps it was the pressure to complete this project on a fast track that made the heavy-handed approach more appealing. But it was incumbent on Enron as a public corporation, with the lesson of the chemical contamination incident a few years earlier at Bhopal, to have responded to the first mass protest at the site with a systematic program of crisis management.

Enron either did not have a proactive strategy at the outset for promoting its interest among the people, or management had put it aside.

Crisis management would have created an on-site committee with participation of a representative from headquarters, legal counsel and media relations and initiated consultations with representatives from the community.

Political risk analysis for long-gestation projects must consider the broader implications of localized civil protest. Many corporations enter a market relying on the cooperation of a government, do little as an enterprise to provoke local antagonism, but find themselves wedged in a battle between protesters and government.

The local people are venting their frustration with the development policies and practices of the government on the foreign-owned enterprises. Often such incidents are not fully reported.

In Nigeria, five major oil companies became embroiled in a dispute between government and the Ogoni people concerning the lack of distribution of oil wealth. In 1998, Chevron called the cops on protesters at its Parabe Platform in Ondo; as a result, two petitioners were killed.

Understand the local environment, relate to it in a positive way, and ascertain that the police are aware of the constraints under which they should operate in protecting a guest of the country.

Develop a system for the exchange of information and ideas in a positive way with the community.

Look for the most politically articulate activists, traditional leaders and representatives of women and youth and establish a framework for discussion.

If necessary, contribute to community development; in the long term, ignoring all grievances will be far more costly than moderate, ancillary expenditures.