Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers


New York Times
25 January 2003

Editorial: An International Right to Know

In 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 at home.

A 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 they operate.

[PDF of report (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)]

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 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.

Globalization 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.

Companies 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.





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