New Internationalist

‘London should not have Dow’s toxic legacy on its conscience’

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Ethics tzar’ Meredith Alexander resigned from the London Olympic committee at the end of January. She tells Jack Laurenson and Colin Toogood from the Bhopal Medical Appeal why.

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The London Olympics were wrapped in fresh embarrassment and controversy at the end of January, as Mayor Boris Johnson’s ‘ethics Tzar’ resigned live on BBC Newsnight over fears that her ethics and sustainability concerns with regards to sponsors simply weren’t being listened to. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman, she announced that her position at the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL) was no longer tenable in light of the London Organizing Committee for the Olypmic Games (LOCOG)’s continued relationship with and defence of the Dow Chemical Company. ‘By coming on air tonight, I’m taking the decision to resign my position and stand up for my principles… I feel that I was part of a body that has been used to legitimize Dow’s involvement in the games,’ she explained. Dow took over Union Carbide Corporation in 2001, but neither company has addressed the ongoing issue of water and soil contamination in Bhopal that continues to kill thousands and afflict even more with chronic illnesses.

Coverage of the ongoing Bhopal tragedy, and the controversy over Dow and London 2012, soared with the news of the resignation, and Meredith acquired overnight celebrity status in India. Her resignation live on British television resulted in an outpouring of hope, gratitude and optimism from those still living in Union Carbide and Dow’s toxic shadow.

What were the main reasons for your resignation from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL)?

All the evidence I have read has convinced me that Dow Chemicals is responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 people in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak. The assets and liabilities of the company involved at the time – Union Carbide – are in Dow’s hands. Londoners, and other people, who are rightly excited about the London games, should not have this toxic legacy on their conscience.

At what point did your position became ‘untenable’ and why?

The tipping point for me was the correspondence between Amnesty International and Lord Coe [Chair of LOCOG]. The latest response from Amnesty, just last week, pointed out how LOCOG have become apologists for Dow, falsely legitimizing Dow’s stance that it bears no responsibility to the victims of the disaster and their families. I feel that the Olympic bodies are supporting Dow’s line and have failed to take the victims’ views into consideration.

Last week, Sebastian Shakespeare published a controversial column in the London Evening Standard with the bold headline ‘The Olympics should be no place for ethics’. Have you read it, and if so, what did you think?

I have read it. And I actually submitted a letter to the editor yesterday about it. I think most Londoners share my view that ethics and sport can and must go hand in hand. Yet as things stand, the enjoyment of the Games risks being hampered by the toxic legacy of one of the sponsors: Dow Chemicals. When London bid to host the 2012 Games, we made a promise to the world that it would be most sustainable Games ever.

Based on your resignation, can you further tell us why you think that ethics, morality, and sustainability are an important part of the Olympics? Why shouldn’t we just accept that commercial sponsorship is inevitable and ‘get over it’?

I think it’s important to remember that there was absolutely no need for the London 2012 organizers to award anyone the contract for this wrap. It’s a completely optional item that is not essential to the design of the stadium. It will not help a single athlete run faster, nor will it help spectators have a better view. Dow’s connection to the Olympics is a slap in the face to the victims of Bhopal, but the fact that this wrap is unnecessary makes this particular deal even more galling for those who have spent decades fighting for justice.

On a personal and emotional level, what did your resignation mean to you? And, in relation to this, you undoubtedly saw the response from survivors and human rights campaigners, both in Britain and India, so what is your response to that? How does it make you feel?

The decision to resign was very difficult because the CSL has made major contributions to making London 2012 more sustainable. I have a lot of respect for the people I have been working with for the last two years. I really struggled with the decision to walk away. But in the end, I could not let my name be associated with a statement that falsely supports Dow’s claim to be a responsible company. Although I decided to resign publicly, it was an intensely personal decision.

However, I am thrilled that I have been able to achieve so much attention for the victims, survivors and families of those who lost loved ones in this disaster. These people and their demand for justice have been forgotten for far too long. Their fight is hugely inspiring. I have been deeply humbled by the response of people to my resignation. There has been a real outpouring of support here in the UK, where most are horrified that Dow’s toxic legacy is now on their conscience as Londoners. But it is the reaction from India that has truly amazed me.

The Indian Olympic Association has stated that your resignation has ‘vindicated’ their argument calling for Dow to be dropped and they’ve renewed their attempts to achieve this. In light of your resignation, how should LOCOG, the CSL and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) respond to the growing global opposition to Dow?

I think both the IOC and LOCOG should review their contracts with Dow. I find it impossible to reconcile Dow’s toxic legacy with the Olympic values of the IOC or LOCOG’s promise to host the most sustainable games ever. It is essential that they listen to representatives of the survivors and the people who lost loved ones in this tragedy. So far they seem to be only hearing the company’s side of the story.

This is not a historic disaster, it is ongoing, and attempts to clean up the area have been woefully inadequate. I want to see Dow publicly admit responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy, to clean up the contaminated site, and to compensate victims. I think the responsible thing to do would be for Dow to withdraw from the wrap contract. Otherwise London 2012 is undermining its aim to be the most sustainable Games ever and showing contempt for the victims in Bhopal.

Meredith Alexander was interviewed by Jack Laurenson and Colin Toogood for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. Reproduced with permission.

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