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Financial Times

Oil groups back initiative to guard human rights. Dec 21, 2000. BY EDWARD ALDEN IN WASHINGTON AND DAVID BUCHAN IN LONDON

Seven leading US and UK oil and mining companies on Wednesday announced their support for a government-led initiative aimed at curbing human rights abuses at facilities in developing countries.

The voluntary principles are intended to ensure that companies act to stem abuses by public or private security forces protecting company operations. The initiative arises out of numerous incidents in the past decade in which large oil and mining companies have come under sharp criticism from human rights groups for killings carried out by security forces in states such as Nigeria and Colombia.

The seven include three US oil companies - Chevron, Texaco and Conoco - as well as BP Amoco and Shell of the UK and the mining groups Rio Tinto and Freeport MacMoran. Enron, the US energy giant, is also expected to endorse the initiative within the month.

The initiative, launched last year by the US State Department and the Foreign Office, marks the first time that human rights groups, governments and companies have worked jointly to draft principles for ethical corporate conduct. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions welcomed the agreement.

Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, called the agreement "a landmark for corporate responsibility".

Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, said the pact should "greatly reduce the scope for human rights abuses associated with the way companies protect themselves and their employees overseas".

The commitments represented a significant shift, particularly for US companies which had lagged behind their UK counterparts in developing internal codes of conduct, said Frances House, of the Prince of Wales Business Leader Forum.

BP Amoco said it had already adopted similar internal guidelines, which called for "a respect for human rights and a willingness to use our influence to persuade host-country institutions to do the same, while stopping short of getting involved in government, which we cannot do".

Four years ago BP, prior to its merger with Amoco, came under strong criticism for indirectly funding rightwing Colombian paramilitary forces to protect its oil pipelines from rebel attack. The company said Colombia had not permitted the hiring of a security force but had instead required payment to the defence ministry, whose army and police then appeared to hire paramilitary guards.

The most conspicuous omission from the list is Exxon-Mobil, the US company that is the world's largest oil producer. The company was invited to participate but was reluctant to endorse the guidelines. Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch, which monitors rights abuses, said the initiative could persuade Exxon to reconsider.

Also absent is Premier Oil of the UK, pressed this year by the government to pull out of Burma.