On Thursday – 80 days after BP executives first admitted that oil from their stricken rig was pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico – the company finally stopped the leak. The Louisiana coastline has been devastated, tourism and fishing industries have been wrecked, thousands of birds, fish and animals have been killed …and BP’s reputation is in tatters.
The last point may be a small positive in a story of utter destruction and hopelessness. Politicians across the US, including Barak Obama, have been un-relentless in their criticism. A unprecedentedly huge compensation package has been agreed, talk of criminal charges has been raised and BP’s behaviour in other areas- namely regarding lobbying over the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi – has been dragged into the spotlight. Unfortunately the company’s involvement in the occupation of West Papua will probably escape scrutiny – but its true colours are nevertheless being recognised –and attacked – on the international stage.
This is an encouraging sign in an age where companies shunning corporate social responsibility to human rights and the environment are often afforded a kind of political immunity so long as they return a profit. Of course NGOs regularly attack companies such as Total for their horrendous abuses in Burma, Nestle for their exploitation of mothers in the developing world or Chevron for the environmental armageddon they brought to Ecuador, but all too often our governments turn a blind eye to such irresponsible and immoral behaviour.
The criticism now directed at BP by senior politicians is a step in the right direction and raises hopes that- in future, multinationals may not be given such a free ride by our leaders.
Of course, it would be naïve to expect that this is the start of a new era in which companies are unreservedly held to account for their actions. Activists have been quick to point out that far more oil is annually spilt into the Niger Delta by companies such as Shell, than was spilt into the Gulf of Mexico by BP – yet Obama and the Western world remain silent. Similarly, revelations of tobacco giant Philip Morris’ use of child labour in Kazakhstan have received little attention from British or American politicians. As always, events that become an issue when they affect our nations are conveniently ignored when they devastate lives thousands of miles away.
Nonetheless, the strong and deserved attacks on BP will make it that little bit harder for big business to ignore environmental or human factors in the future. It is just possible some progress is being made.