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Self policing hasn’t stopped big oil abuses

By Alison Raphael 
Updated Oct 22, 2008, 10:04 am 

WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – Activists from Burma and Nigeria underlined the failure to date of “voluntary” controls over major oil companies operating in their countries as human rights, the environment and corporate responsibility were highlighted recently at a Capitol Hill hearing.

Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), were activists Ka Hsaw Wa (a pseudonym) and Nnimmo Bassey joined Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch and Bennett Freeman, who works for the Calvert Group but was one of the architects of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights established for the extractive industry in 2000.

The Voluntary Principles were developed in hopes of calming the waters in countries where multinational companies extract oil, gas and other minerals at great profit, but at a terrible cost to human rights and local environments.

Through the Voluntary Principals, corporations are offered guidance about local communities where they will be working, and are expected to ensure that their rights are not violated as a result of activities the corporations undertake.

However, after the launch of the principals in 2000, under the George W. Bush administration, the process “drifted without clear direction,” Mr. Freeman said. At present, no credible mechanisms for accountability or reporting exist, making it impossible to monitor progress or adherence to the principles.

Mr. Freeman, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Jeffrey Krilla acknowledged that lacking support from and oversight by the governments involved, initiatives such as the Voluntary Principles are likely to be ignored by all concerned.

Recent experience in Burma and Nigeria attests to this trend, according to testimony by speakers from these countries.

The U.S.-owned Chevron Corp. has a contract with Burma’s military junta to provide security for its operations along the vast Yadama pipeline area, which carries Burmese oil through neighboring Thailand for export to the United States.

Ka Hsaw Wa, founder and director of Earth Rights International and recipient of several prestigious awards for his work, detailed gross violations of human rights documented when he and his team spoke to dozens of villagers along the pipeline.

Rape, even of young children, is not uncommon, the activist said. Local people are used as forced labor, and are prohibited from farming their own land without “permission” from the military, usually tied to a financial or material contribution, such as a chicken, Ka Hsaw Wa said.

“It is amazing to me that a U.S. company is allowed to contract with an army that commits these kinds of abuses with impunity,” he testified.

A booklet prepared by his organization, “The Human Cost of Energy,” points out that Chevron has yet to say a word about the beating and shooting of Buddhist monks demonstrating against the military regime last year, despite the serious violations of human rights involved.

“The principles have yet to take root in Nigeria,” agreed Mr. Nnimmo, who heads the country’s Environmental Rights Action group, allied with Friends of the Earth International.

Since oil began to be extracted in the Niger Delta 50 years ago, the police and military, acting on behalf of the government and Shell Oil, have consistently ignored or violated the rights of local communities, he said.

The first documented massacre of 80 people took place in 1990. During the mid-1990s the military killed hundreds of Ogoni people and nine Ogoni leaders, including internationally known Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been protesting environmental damage by oil companies and demanding compensation.

In 1998, the Ilaje people began to protest the destruction of their environment by Chevron’s oil exploration, which had killed the fish the remote community relied on for food. The incursion of salt water into rivers also destroyed vegetation and drinking water supplies. The custom of gas flaring creates health hazards and burns homes.

When a group of unarmed protesters occupied an oil platform to demand compensation, as well as jobs and medical assistance, Chevron called in the military, which came in shooting and arrested and tortured village leaders.

“After 50 years, these companies are still not willing to sit down and enter into dialogue with communities,” Mr. Nnimmo said.

A court case for damages against Chevron by Nigerian Larry Bowoto and other Ilaje victims is still ongoing in U.S. federal court and in California state courts, where the plaintiffs seek an injunction to prevent Chevron from further “complicity” in abuse by the Nigerian military.

Discouraged by the picture painted during the hearing, Sen. Durbin declared that the government must take stronger measures to ensure that U.S. companies are not engaging human rights abuses and promoting the “devastating” environmental impacts described by the witnesses.

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