In 1984, 40 tons of lethal gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Thousands of people were killed. The disaster in India led the U.S. 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 at home.
A new report by a coalition of environmental, labor and human rights groups, including the Sierra Club, Oxfam, Amnesty International and the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, argues for an international right to know. The groups are not seeking any new prohibitions on company behavior. Instead they want large companies that are traded on U.S. stock exchanges and have significant international operations to be required to disclose information that could affect the communities in which they operate.
The 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 environment agency.
The organizations also cite the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as an example of a successful tool to improve American business practices overseas. Passed in 1977, it barred companies traded in America from bribing foreign officials. America’s leadership on the issue helped persuade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to introduce a global convention against bribery 20 years later.
Globalization has brought new scrutiny to the practices of multinational corporations. Environmental, labor and human rights groups are using lawsuits, good conduct labels and public protests to force or shame companies into better behavior. The idea of an international right to know is a creative new approach, and for the companies a not particularly burdensome one.
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, or oil and gas companies in Indonesia and Nigeria from hiring abusive security forces to guard their installations. But they would have to tell the public about these practices, and let the market, and public opinion, go to work.
Companies and international trade groups say the reporting requirements would be onerous. In fact, such disclosures would pose very little burden on large companies, the only ones that would be covered. Multinational companies also argue that they are usually better employers than local companies. This is true, but irrelevant. American companies investing in repressive nations such as China argue that their very presence furthers human rights and democracy by exporting American values. Companies that offend American values should not be allowed to do so in secret.