From excessive force by their security guards to helping support corrupt regimes, oil companies have long faced accusations of helping trigger human rights abuses in the far-flung countries where they operate.
Unocal Corp., later acquired by Chevron Corp., was buffeted by protests for refusing to leave Myanmar, while Exxon Mobil Corp. has faced pressure for years over alleged abuses by Indonesian military guards that protected its facilities in the remote Aceh province.
Chevron and Occidental Petroleum Corp. have suffered a lingering backlash from activists over their roles in Ecuador and Colombia, respectively.
But after years of public pressure, activists say Big Oil has begun to change its approach to human rights issues, with many showing signs they are taking it more seriously than ever.
Ten, or even five, years ago, many oil executives would have scoffed at the notion of placing human rights on their agenda, arguing that they are businesses, not government entities.
More recently, however, several major oil companies have come out with explicit statements outlining a human rights policy and pledging to support widely accepted principles in what activists are hailing as an important first step.
Ten years ago, companies did not feel like they needed to come out with a human rights policy and today they all do, said Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights program at Human Rights Watch. They recognize they have to deal with human rights.
Last year, Exxon Mobil rolled out a set of guidelines on security and human rights in seven countries, which includes reporting security incidents, vetting private security providers, and mandates training for private security forces.
Earlier this year, Chevron adopted a human rights statement after consulting with outside experts. The statement does not reflect any change in policy or approach by the company, but is intended to raise awareness of the issue, Chevron's Corporate Responsibility manager, Maria Pica, told Reuters.
Still, activists say there is still a long way to go. What remains to be seen is whether the new policies are acted on.
Whether it's stuff that's just on paper is the multibillion dollar question and the truth is we don't know yet, said Mila Rosenthal, director of the business and human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA. They've come some ways in terms of the public commitments. What we're waiting to see is if it's having enough impact on the ground.
A LASTING FOOTPRINT
In Nigeria, the perception that oil drilling has enriched foreign oil companies and corrupt politicians at the expense of the local population has triggered protests that are violently repressed by Nigerian armed forces, human rights groups say.
In countries like Chad and Equatorial Guinea, human rights groups want more transparency in payments made by oil companies to the governments. With their deep pockets and the long-lasting impact on areas they drill, oil companies have a responsibility to ensure that their presence promotes respect for human rights, they say.
An apparel factory, say, does not have the same footprint that an oil company does, said David Schilling, who directs the corporate accountability program at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. It has a big impact because of its operations and the wealth that is generated from that enterprise.