- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Amnesty International, known for its creative protests on behalf of political prisoners, has embraced the tactic of buying stock in the name of human rights.
For the first time, it has taken a stake in a major U.S. corporation so it can introduce a shareholder resolution for consideration at Exxon Mobil Corp.'s annual meeting May 29. Amnesty hopes to persuade the company to adopt policies promoting human rights and is using its own name to marshal investor interest in the resolution.
"We think we'll be at the meeting with a sizable block of votes," said Mort Winston, head of Amnesty's Business and Economic Relations Group.
Amnesty is pressing Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil to adopt a formal policy based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and submit to outside audits of its human rights record. The group is angling to influence Exxon Mobil's conduct in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Chad, where the oil giant is at work on lucrative projects in areas plagued by civil strife.
Exxon Mobil spokesman Tom Cirigliano has declined to address the group's complaints directly until the company's shareholder proxy statement is published later this month. But he stresses that the company condemns human rights violations and makes positive contributions to the communities where it operates.
"We'll definitely have a response to Amnesty on this one," he said.
Promoting social causes through shareholder resolutions is nothing new among investors such as asset-management companies and pension funds. But Amnesty's case stands out as an example of a prominent nongovernmental organization that has bought a token amount of stock and is using its prestige to rally others to its cause.
Amnesty has garnered support from other investors, including Boston-based Walden Asset Management, the AFL-CIO labor federation, the New York City pension fund for police and teachers, and several faith-based groups, Mr. Winston said.
"It's very striking to me," said Meg Vorhes, an analyst for social issues at the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, which provides information to major investors.
Last year, investors proposed 262 resolutions at 177 companies dealing with issues as diverse as the environment, racial discrimination, labor rights and pharmaceutical prices. In a March report, the Investor Responsibility Research Center said 2002 would be a "busy season," with 173 resolutions pending for annual meetings in the first half of this year.
Shareholder resolutions are not binding, but investors resort to them based on a perception that management is embarrassed by having to list them on the annual proxy statement, which is devoted mostly to elections of the board of directors.
Under federal regulations, resolutions that receive at least 3 percent of the vote can be reintroduced the next year, giving investors a "bargaining chip" to achieve results without passage, said Simon Billenness, an analyst with Trillium Asset Management in Boston.
"Only in extraordinary cases do they get more than 50 percent of the vote," he said.
Amnesty turned toward corporations after years of focus on government human rights abuses. In 1998, it began a dialogue with what was then Fairfax-based Mobil Corp. It specifically asked Mobil to champion the cause of two imprisoned leaders of the Nigerian oil-workers union with the military regime that then governed the country.
"The basic strategy is to use engagement rather than confrontation," Mr. Winston said.
Also in 1998, Amnesty created a fund, now worth about $200,000, to buy stock in corporations that might be the subject of shareholder action. It now contains the stocks of several mining and oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, Mr. Winston said.
But Exxon Mobil, the merged company, balked at Amnesty's demands that it adopt an official human rights policy, so Amnesty filed a shareholder resolution in November.
A meeting with high-level executives early this year failed to resolve the impasse, setting up a fight at the annual meeting in May.
"At this point," Mr. Winston said, "the die is cast."
Exxon Mobil stock closed yesterday at $43.69, down 69 cents, on the New York Stock Exchange.

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