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Just Earth campaign unites human rights and environmentalism

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Defending the earth can be a dangerous business, leading to arrest and torture, according to Lisa Sock of Amnesty International.

You're not likely to see this kind of notice on your next pair of jeans or gym shoes: "Warning: This product was made in a sweatshop by peasants driven from their land by a corporation in league with a repressive government."

That kind of information might influence consumers' buying habits, of course, in turn influencing corporations' behavior. And that's why Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and more than 200 environmental, labor, social justice, faith and human-rights organizations in the United States have joined together in a campaign to enact an International Right to Know Law.

Just as corporations are joining forces to eliminate restrictions on international trade, grassroots organizations representing various interests are starting to work together to balance corporate power.

"Human rights, the environment and corporate accountability fit into a context of globalization," says Lisa Sock, field coordinator for Amnesty International's Human Rights and the Environment Program.

Amnesty International and the Sierra Club have launched Just Earth, a campaign against human-rights abuses that follow on the heels of environmental destruction. Sock will speak Monday at Raymond Walters College.

"This is a very unique collaboration, the largest grassroots human-rights organization and one of the largest grassroots environmental organizations working together to address a pattern of environmentalists being attacked," Sock says. "A lot of environmentalists are targeted simply because of their environmental activism."

Environmental concerns have sometimes been cast as antithetical to human needs — a preference for saving the whales instead of helping people.

But to the degree such a dichotomy exists, it is a contrivance, according to Sock.

"One might argue that development has created a distinction between human rights and the environment," she says. "We want development programs to be responsible, so they don't have a negative impact on individuals. Construction of a pipeline or a dam or a corporate operation on a river should have a neutral effect, if not a positive effect, instead of forcing people to flee their homes or ingest toxic chemicals.

"To distinguish human rights and the environment is to take humans out of the concept of the ecosystem," Sock says. "Humans can't live without clean air and plants."

In some countries, fighting for clean air and biological diversity can be as dangerous as fighting for freedom of speech or democratic elections. Since its founding in 1961, Amnesty International has championed the cause of prisoners of conscience around the world, including some of the best known dissidents in the former Eastern Bloc. Today the organization is publicizing the plight of two Mexican activists, Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García, who led opposition to the logging of frontier forests in Guerrero state by contractors for Boise Cascade, a U.S. paper- and wood-products corporation.

"The Mexican government accused them of possession of marijuana and illegal weapons," Sock says. "The government forced their confessions after they were tortured. We're asking people to put pressure on President Fox to make sure this case is investigated and that they are unconditionally freed."

In Russia, Amnesty International took up the cause of Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired naval captain charged with treason for writing a report on environmental hazards caused by that country's aging fleet of nuclear submarines. In Nigeria, according to Amnesty International, Chevron allegedly provided boats and helicopters to the Nigerian Army for use in quashing opposition to the company's petroleum operations.

"In Burma, we're asking our members to put pressure on Unocal to ensure forced labor is not being used," Sock says. "Unocal is constructing a pipeline across Burma and into Thailand."

The link between environmentalism, human rights and worker rights grows stronger as the effects of globalization become more apparent, according to Sock. As if to illustrate the point, Paperworkers Local 5-0832 hosted two Mexican workers Feb. 26 for a demonstration against Duro Bag, a Northern Kentucky company that allegedly fired the two men for trying to organize at its Rio Bravo plant.

Americans are just beginning to appreciate the effect U.S. companies have on foreign countries, Sock says. What she hopes to do is mobilize citizens outraged by violations of human rights.

"Individuals can put pressure on governments," Sock says. "Public pressure in the capacity of letters has a positive effect to let an individual know the world is watching what they're doing. Another component is Americans consume a great deal more than the rest of the world. For that alone, we have the ability to change our consumption patterns, as well as how products are made. Americans have a great deal of power for the amount we consume."

Although letter-writing campaigns might seem almost trite, they work, Sock says.

"Amnesty International's major bread and butter is writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience," she says. "You can get in touch with your members of Congress about holding U.S.-based companies accountable for their operations abroad in terms of environmental practices, human rights, labor rights and whether they use security forces."

If the subject of globalization and corporate power seems somehow distant from most people's lives in this country, Sock aims to persuade them otherwise. The Just Earth campaign is receiving a strong response, she says.

"I try to encourage audiences to think about their involvement in this issue because of the consumption pattern," Sock says. "We all live on a very small piece of real estate on this planet. What happens in Nebraska can affect Nigeria. A forest burning in Indonesia can affect people living in Sweden. It really resonates with people.

"While we have the right to organize and speak out, people in other parts of the world do not. It's not so difficult to get involved, to take action, to be an agent for change."

Lisa Sock will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Muntz Hall at Raymond Walters College. For more information, call 513-221-7659.

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