Canadian Corporate Responsibility and the War in Sudan

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2000 Volume 21 Issue 1

The operations of a Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy Inc., in Sudan have come under intense scrutiny in the past year. Criticism of the company grows out of concerns that general oil operations supported by Talisman are exacerbating both the war and human rights violations in Sudan. Late last year the Canadian Government appointed Africa specialist John Harker to lead an investigative mission to Sudan to look into, among other things, the links between oil and human rights violations and the escalation of war. The report of the mission, which included Ploughshares Director Ernie Regehr, concluded that the oil operations do indeed contribute to an intensification of war and to extensive human rights violations, particularly the forced removal of civilian populations from the oil region. A forthcoming report from Human Rights Watch in Washington will draw a similar conclusion.

A variety of efforts are currently underway to persuade the company to take measures to meet its corporate responsibilities. Some are arguing that there is no option but for the company to cease operations in Sudan until after the war, when a new government or governments can ensure that the oil operations and revenues become agents of development rather than conflict. Calls for disinvestment and for Government measures to force Talisman out of Sudan are gaining support. Some institutional shareholders, led by Canadian churches, are using shareholder actions to try to persuade the company to acknowledge the impact of its operations and to take measures to meet its responsibility to remove oil extraction as a cause of conflict and to end complicity in human rights violations.

During the past eight months, Ploughshares, continuing its involvement in Track II diplomacy designed to support the Sudan peace process, has been part of a small group of NGOs in dialogue with the company in another bid to persuade it to take concrete measures to mitigate the negative impacts of its operation on human rights and the peace process. The NGOs recently concluded that the discussions were not moving forward and thus ended the effort. Ernie Regehr describes the project and what it was trying to achieve.

In rejecting an NGO proposal for measures to mitigate some of the effects of its Sudan operations, Talisman Energy Inc. spokesperson Mr. David Mann told the Globe and Mail that the company was being asked “to take responsibility to monitor human rights in the entire country, and we can’t do this and we should not be asked to do this” (“NGOs pull out of talks with Talisman,” Feb. 25/00).

The NGOs definitely did not ask Talisman oil workers or executives to become human rights monitors, only to meet their minimum responsibilities. The plan, put forward jointly by representatives of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, the United Church of Canada, World Vision, and Project Ploughshares, called on Talisman to respond with concrete actions and commitments to three specific concerns regarding the damaging effects of oil operations in war-torn Sudan. In our discussions with the company we warned:

• that the oil extraction enterprise is fomenting local war and human rights violations in the Western Upper Nile region, especially the forced removal of populations;

• that the oil revenues are likely to ease economic constraints on the Government of Sudan (GOS) and thus make it more likely that Khartoum will regard continued war as affordable and so be less likely to enter seriously into peace negotiations; and

• that Talisman Energy is participating in the exploitation of a resource whose ownership is in dispute on two counts – first, the legitimacy of the GOS with which Talisman has a contract is challenged at home and abroad, and, second, the people of south Sudan currently have no effective means by which to participate in decisions about the allocation and use of the revenues produced by oil resources taken from their territory.

In response to these concerns, the company made two basic points:

• that it believed its operations contributed to Sudan’s development and that the company clearly intended to continue to operate in Sudan; and

• that in its discussions with the GOS it regularly raised human rights issues and encouraged intensified negotiations toward a durable peace.

While we maintained that oil revenues will not contribute to development as long as the country continues to be at war and that it would, therefore, be in the best interests of the people of the Sudan and the peace process if the oil extraction operations were stopped until after a clear peace settlement was reached, we also insisted that as long as the oil is flowing, and as long as a Canadian company is involved, we as Canadian groups concerned about Sudan should make every effort to try to encourage Talisman to take measures that might at least begin to mitigate the negative consequences of the oil operations and to at least minimally meet its moral and legal obligations. The moral obligations are obvious to anyone who has witnessed, or read accounts of, the extraordinary suffering of populations attacked by helicopter gun ships and driven from their homes in the oil regions. The legal obligations of private firms operating in the midst of, and benefiting from, routine violations of human rights norms, customary international law, and conventions such as that on the Rights of the Child and the 1949 Geneva Convention relating the treatment of civilians in conflict, are no less clear and no less salient.

Our three-fold proposal to the company was simple and modest (indeed, some in the NGO community sharply criticised us for being too accommodating and much too modest in the demands we put forward):

• we said that the company claim that it engaged in ongoing discussions with the GOS concerning peace and human rights would be credible only if those discussions were transparent and verified by independent monitors, and thus we proposed that the company arrange and conduct a series of such discussions, to be held in the company of acknowledged and independent experts on human rights and on the current peace process;

• we asked the company to support the independent study of the human rights situation in the oil region (to be carried out by professional human rights investigators), with particular attention to the issue of the forced removals of populations from the oil areas; and

• we called on the company to initiate a monitored and transparent discussion with the GOS and the political/military movements in the south to explore ways in which the oil revenues currently going to the GOS could be kept from financing the war and instead be preserved for humanitarian and development purposes.

We proposed that these activities be carried out in a program of up to three years, and that all the costs should be borne by the company and be paid fully in advance in order to ensure the program’s integrity and independence (we estimated the costs would come in at just under $1-million if the program continued for the full three-year term).

The company’s rejection of even this modest call to address the extraordinarily serious implications for human rights and the ongoing war in Sudan of its operations does not leave one hopeful that it is prepared to make any voluntary and credible effort to even minimally acknowledge its responsibility toward the people of Sudan in whose midst it has chosen to operate.

And it is worth remembering that it is with the company that the primary responsibility lies. Industry is fond of speaking against government regulatory intervention and of claiming maximum freedom of international movement for capital and a minimum of constraints imposed by national governments. So in all the discussion of possible governmental actions against the company, we should not lose sight of the fact that the primary moral and legal obligations rest with the company. Shareholders, the company owners, have a responsibility to inform their management that their continued confidence in their investment is contingent upon specific, verifiable efforts to address the company’s moral and legal responsibilities.

But if owners and managers both continue to fail to voluntarily meet their obligations, then the rest of us, from individual Canadians, to the business community, to labour, and to Cabinet Ministers with responsibility for regulating industry and trade, must sooner rather than later support decisive government intervention to compel Talisman to meet its obligations.

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