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August 05, 2005
Power to the People: Amnesty Launches Grassroots Shareowner Advocacy Program
    by William Baue

The SharePower program encourages ordinary people to tell institutional investors holding shares in their name to vote for shareowner resolutions supporting human rights.

Did you know that you probably have a stronger voice in corporate America than you realize? Your own investments in companies allow you to vote on shareowner resolutions on social, environmental, and corporate governance issues. Magnifying this power exponentially is ownership of a mutual fund for example, or being a beneficiary of a pension fund, or participating in an academic community supported by an endowment. Mutual funds, pension funds, universities, and other institutions are significant shareholders, and their fiduciaries are beholden to represent the interests of their constituents, which includes voting their proxies in line with their constituents' interests.

To leverage the latent power of institutional investors' obligations to their constituents, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) launched a campaign called "SharePower" earlier this week. Share Power seeks to coordinate individuals to voice their concerns to the institutions that hold investments on their behalf. Traditionally, institutional investors would just rubber-stamp company recommendations on the proxy, which almost always oppose resolutions. However, the spate of recent prosecutions of corporate fraud has raised valid concerns whether corporate interests are truly aligned with shareholder interests.

SharePower represents the first attempt to bring shareowner advocacy campaigning into the hands of ordinary people in a nationally coordinated and comprehensive effort.

"There have been national proxy solicitations on specific votes, but it is our understanding that this is the first time activists and citizens across the country are targeting institutional shareholders by using their constituent power to leverage accountability for human rights with investments made in their name," said Mila Rosenthal, AIUSA's business and human rights program director.

SharePower will focus on two specific shareowner resolutions on human rights and environmental issues, one at Chevron (ticker: CVX) and the other at Dow (DOW). The Chevron resolution, which Amnesty has co-filed for several years, asks the company to report on new management initiatives to address health and environmental concerns regarding oil-related contamination where subsidiary Texaco operated in Ecuador. The Dow resolution, which Amnesty is co-filing this year, asks the company to report on its accountability for the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India at a subsidiary Union Carbide plant.

"We use those as examples where Amnesty has research on the human rights abuses in both cases," Ms. Rosenthal told

For example, Amnesty released a highly influential report last year on twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

The SharePower program is not limited to these resolutions, but rather seeks to facilitate advocacy by urging ordinary people to voice their opinions on the entire gamut of shareowner resolutions filed at corporations.

"It's trying to effect change in those specific instances and also trying to educate everyone about the power of shareholder advocacy," said Ms. Rosenthal. "The possibility of effecting positive change is potentially enormous."

SharePower promotes interactivity by hosting an online forum where participants can track the progress of shareowner advocacy campaigns across the US. For example, participants can post the proxy voting records of institutions to provide others information as fodder for their own campaigning.

Amnesty will measure the success of SharePower over the next year.

"In the short term, increases in voting percentages in support of resolutions will represent success," Ms. Rosenthal explained. "Also, seeing institutional investors take first steps toward implementing proxy voting guidelines that include human rights criteria would be a measurable shift."

Though difficult to measure, perhaps the most significant gauge of success will be wider public awareness of how companies handle social and environmental issues, and the recognition that individuals can influence corporate behavior.


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