by Sister Florence Deacon, OSF, Congregation Justice coordinator
In August 2017, the Sisters of the Holy Cross and 34 other investors wrote to Chevron Corporation to express our concern about violence against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. The country shares a border with Bangladesh, where the sisters minister. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group, had suffered decades of persecution by Myanmar’s government and Buddhist nationalists. When a Rohingya rebel group responded with attacks on military and police posts in 2016, a movement of extreme brutality against the Rohingya people had erupted.
A call to action
Our letter urged Chevron to use its leverage to press the regime to quell the violence. Chevron was involved in a gas project in Myanmar and had been active in the country for more than 20 years. We also asked them to consider adopting a policy against doing business in states that engage in genocide. In our closing, we requested a conference call with Chevron to identify ways we could work together to “serve as a voice for stability and human rights in Myanmar.”
A date was set for our conversation. We would meet after I returned from conducting a three-day justice workshop for Holy Cross sisters in Asia. The workshop, which took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh, appropriately highlighted the Congregation’s proposed Corporate Stand on Migration. And the visit allowed me to gather information about what was happening locally.
By the time of our conference call in October 2017, the violence had escalated. Nearly 580,000 Rohingya had fled for their lives to Bangladesh.
Human rights atrocities
Here, I share with you how we continued to engage with Chevron as the situation deteriorated. Our experience stands as an example of how shareholder engagement and perseverance can lead to success.
Chevron was sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya, but they told us they had little influence within Myanmar. They explained they were working behind the scenes and couldn’t tell us any details. That gave us little satisfaction. By the following year, tens of thousands of Rohingya had been killed and more than 700,000 had fled to Bangladesh.
Shareholders push for change
In 2018, the Congregation then co-filed a resolution asking Chevron’s board for a report weighing “not doing business with governments that are complicit in genocide and/or crimes against humanity.” In response to this, Chevron asked for another dialogue with us to explain that they had taken our previous concerns very seriously and had made major progress in Myanmar.
Signs of progress
During our conversation, they told us they had engaged leaders in both the United States and Myanmar about the violations. They added that they had trained business and government officials on human rights, made a huge donation for the refugees, and created a new position of Environmental, Social and Government Engagement. They also promised to convene a major conference of business, government and NGOs. The intent: to discuss if and how businesses should operate in areas of conflict, including their human rights responsibilities. With that assurance of progress, we withdrew our shareholders resolution.
Coup leads to more violence
Then, in February 2021, the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, killed hundreds of protesters, and detained and tortured thousands more. When international governments put financial sanctions on the military, their main source of foreign funds became the oil and gas projects. According to Human Rights Watch, Myanmar’s revenues from those projects totaled more than a billion dollars yearly.
Chevron had believed they were improving the human rights situation by staying in the country, but a new analysis was needed.
Investors press businesses to examine actions
In June 2021, the Congregation signed an international Investor Statement calling on companies to identify and assess any human rights harms they were contributing to in Myanmar by doing business with the military. It also asked them to address the impacts of their business activities, create plans to correct them, and add procedures to prevent and reduce harmful impacts. The statement concluded, “This is an opportunity for the private sector to show its leadership in navigating and assisting Myanmar’s transition to peace, justice, and democracy.”
Chevron decides to exit Myanmar
Last month, Chevron concluded that its presence in Myanmar was no longer making a positive contribution. It could not justify doing business in Myanmar due to the human rights abuses by the military government. And to remove its negative impact, the company announced it would stop all operations there.
Since 2017 the Sisters of the Holy Cross had been engaging Chevron about its human rights responsibilities through dialogue, investor statements and stockholder resolutions. Finally, Chevron realized that the best way it could help the country’s transition to peace and stability was to deny the military its main revenue source and leave the country entirely.
Our Work for Justice
For more than 175 years, the Sisters of the Holy Cross have responded to the injustices of the times through our ministries. That work includes providing education and health services to people living in poverty, socially responsible investing, caring for Earth, and collaborating to end human trafficking.
Learn more about our ministries, our corporate stands, and our global efforts to promote justice and peace.