Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Norway’s government has been accused of being “complicit in land confiscation, forced labour, killings, and upholding a repressive military regime in Burma” by way of its sovereign wealth fund’s US$4.7 billion stake in 15 firms in Burma’s energy sector, according to a rights organisation’s scathing report released on Wednesday.
The accusations came in a report by EarthRights International (ERI) titled: “Broken Ethics: The Norwegian Government’s Investments in Oil and Gas Companies Operating in Burma.”
According to the report, the fund’s investment in firm’s linked to serious human rights abuses in Burma were a clear violation of the fund’s ethics guidelines. Matthew Smith, one of the report’s authors was quoted in ERI’s press release launching the report that the “Norwegian peoples’ money is invested in corporate human rights abuses while the Ethical Guidelines go unapplied. The ethics are broken but not beyond fixing.”
The majority of the fund’s Burma-tainted investments were in two western firms involved in the Yadana gas project, which ERI had spent years investigating, it said. French firm Total and US firm Chevron have collaborated with the Burmese military regime to pursue their lucrative businesses, which has included paying the Burmese regime for “security” services and relying on the regime to construct key infrastructure for their projects such as access roads and helicopter landing pads using forced labour. The latest figures show the fund presently has a massive US$2.6 billion stake in Total and a US$900 million stake in Chevron.
The Norwegian government-appointed independent Council on Ethics, which advises Norway’s sovereign wealth fund (the world’s second largest) on its holdings concluded in 2007 that Total, which has a 31 per cent stake in the Yadana project, was not presently involved in human rights abuses. While acknowledging that such abuses were likely to have occurred during Yadana pipeline’s construction phase, the council claimed the fund’s US$2 billion investment in Total complied with the fund’s 2004 ethics policy because Total held no responsibility for the rights abuses occurring now.
In the words of the council, the “fact that a company has operations in states controlled by repressive regimes does not, in itself, constitute sufficient grounds to exclude a company from the Fund”.
The ERI report refutes this claim with first-hand witness accounts of extrajudicial killings and forced labour occurring in the territory running along the pipeline, a security corridor in which the firms have obtained the services of one of word’s most brutal military regimes.
Under guideline’s set forth by the Norwegian government, if the council decided that unethical activities of a firm in the fund’s portfolio had caused severe environmental or human rights violations or “if there is an unreasonably high likelihood that the company’s activities will contribute to future abuses” then the fund is supposed to take action, either putting the firm under special observation or divesting totally.
In an interview with another Burmese exile media organisation yesterday, Gro Nysteun, the head of the council, dismissed the report’s key findings that the firm’s activities had caused human rights abuses. This included ERI’s detailed account of the summary executions of two residents of a village located in the pipeline corridor in February this year by soldiers from Infantry Battalion 282. According to ERI, the battalion provides security in the corridor that belongs to Total and Chevron’s pipeline.
Nysteun said: “We don’t disagree on the situation in Burma but we can only exclude companies from the pension fund when the companies themselves are actively participating in the violations of norms.”
ERI campaign director Paul Donowitz responded by telling Mizzima his organisation was very disappointed by Nysteun’s response to the report. He said ERI was simply calling on the council to “apply their own standards to the Ethical Guidelines for companies operating in Burma’s oil and gas sector. Clear evidence demonstrates that these 15 companies are actively involved in projects that are leading directly to serious and ongoing human rights abuses against local populations, or, for projects at the planning and construction phase, include an unreasonably high likelihood of future abuses. These violations are in service to these companies and their projects and any suggestion by the Council that these companies are not actively participating in the abuses shows a disturbingly naïve understanding of the realities inside Burma.”
Norway’s fund ‘afraid to single out Total’
Matthew Morgan, a doctoral candidate at Canada’s York University who has studied Western foreign policy towards Burma, told Mizzima that the Norwegian fund would do its best to avoid singling out Total and Chevron for their activities in Burma. Morgan believed that ERI’s numerous reports have “demonstrated time and again that Total and Chevron’s activities in Burma have caused severe human rights violations. If this so-called ‘ethics council’ actually followed their guidelines then both firms would be excluded from the fund but that’s not going to happen.
“Norway is particularly afraid to single out Total, one of Europe’s biggest companies, a multibillion-dollar giant known to have the backing of the French government in everything it does. If Norway acknowledged the truth about Total, they would then have to examine many other European firms they’ve invested in. Companies like BP, Shell and BAE that have all engaged in extremely unethical behaviour both at home and abroad,” Morgan said.
The other firms active in the Yadana and Yetagun pipeline projects that send gas to Thailand, which the fund has also invested include a US$33.6 million stake in the Thai firm PTT Exploration and Production Company (PTTEP), US$39 million in its sister company, the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and US$46 million in Japan’s JX Holdings (formerly Nippon Oil Corporation). Both PTTEP and PTT are also partially state-owned by the Thai government.
Norway holds major investments in Shwe gas pipeline involved firms
The report also disclosed that the fund has US$460 million combined investment in several firms involved in the Shwe gas project, a pipeline underway in western Burma being built by a consortium led by Korea’s Daewoo International. ERI and other groups have already documented numerous land seizures and forced displacements along the proposed Burmese route of the 1,600-mile (1,000-kilometre) pipelines that will take oil and gas from Burma’s Arakanese coast to China’s Yunnan province.
The Burmese regime’s jailing of Arakanese students for distributing information leaflets about the project was a clear sign that it had no interest in obtaining informed consent from those affected by the project.
According to ERI last year, an Arakanese man was tortured and sent to Burma’s infamous Insein Prison for six months after he was arrested for taking part in a community meeting organised by local residents concerned by the pipeline’s implications. After his release, he told ERI that during his interrogation Burmese authorities “blindfolded me for four days … I was beaten non-stop, always being questioned, non-stop for four days. They asked me many things … They beat me very hard.
Sometimes they’d come in and just slap or punch me. They wouldn’t say anything, they’d just hit me. Sometimes I’d be so tired because I didn’t sleep, and the intelligence [officers] would tell me I could sleep for five minutes. Then they’d wake me up and keep asking me questions, or beat me.”
Daewoo was recently purchased by Korean steel-maker Posco, a firm in which the Norwegian fund owns a stake estimated to be US $244 million. Posco is currently embroiled in a massive human rights controversy surrounding a project in Orissa India.
Other firms involved in the Shwe project which the Norwegian fund owns stakes include a US$12 million in Hyundai Heavy Industries, US$90 million in PetroChina, US$168 million in China’s CNOOC, US$58 million in Kunlun Energy, US$47 Million in GAIL India and US$10 Million in Essar, also from India.
The fund also owns a US$168 million stake in Transocean, the Swiss-American firm now being sued by the US government over its role in BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. Transocean is also under investigation by the US for performing drilling services off the coast of Burma for a consortium that includes a firm owned by Steven Law. Law is a junta crony blacklisted by the US government because American authorities accuse him of laundering money for the drugs kingpin and his infamous drug lord father, Lao Sit Han, aka Lo Hsing Han.
Revenues from gas business sustain ‘highly repressive regime’
The ERI report also raises questions about the “ethics of investing in oil and gas companies that generate sustaining revenues for a highly repressive regime” and have little if any positive contribution to the life of the average person in Burma.
Referring to the multinationals’ oil and gas firm involvement in Burma, Steve Gumaer, the co-founder and international executive director of the Norway-based humanitarian aid-organisation, Partners Relief & Development, was quoted extensively in the press release that accompanied the report. Gumaer, whose organisation has had a major presence on the Thai-Burmese border for many years, was quoted by ERI as saying: “It is said that villages in Northeastern Burma have benefitted by this sort of ‘economic engagement’. I have seen the devastating results; instead of schools, health and hygiene programmes, and other community-development projects, are the ashes of villages that have been burned down. I have talked to women who were raped, men who were forced to serve as porters. I have heard first-hand accounts of brutal murders of anyone unwilling to go along with the regime’s industrial or private business deals.”
ERI estimates that from 1998 to last year, the Burmese regime received nearly US$5 billion (around US$416 million a year) from the Yetagun and Yadana projects. Last year, citing a leaked report, ERI accused the Burmese regime of using secret bank accounts in Singapore to hide billions of dollars in revenue it had received from its gas projects. According to an ERI report released in July this year, the gas revenues continue to be kept in Singapore and were neither included in Burma’s normal budget nor spent on the Burmese people.
Recent US court decision puts ERI legal weapon in jeopardy
Beginning in the 1990’s, ERI has used the evidence and testimony its field workers collected to launch a precedent-setting lawsuit against US energy firm Unocal, in which lawyers working for the NGO sued the firm in California courts on behalf of villagers from Burma affected by the Yadana gas pipeline.
To do this ERI used a long-forgotten 1789 law originally designed to fight pirates called the Alien Tort Claims Act, part of the US Judiciary Act of 1789. The act allows non-citizens to sue another party in American courts for actions “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States” that did not happen on US territory.
The court case dragged on for years, but ERI’s legal team scored some significant victories. Most embarrassing for Unocal and its partner Total, the suit eventually revealed a 1996 smoking gun memo from Total Business Development manager Hervé Chagnoux to Unocal, which substantiated ERI’s claim that Total and Unocal had paid Burma’s military to provide security and also showed the two firms were well aware of the use of forced labour.
“As far as forced labour used by the soldiers in charge of security on our gas-pipeline project is concerned, we must admit between ourselves, Total and Unocal, that we’re probably in a grey area,” Chagnoux said in the memo.
To end the PR disaster Unocal had itself created, the firm eventually sought a confidential settlement with ERI and the villagers. Although the terms along with some of the most damning evidence against Unocal remained undisclosed, it has been reported that the firm settled for US$30 million with the victims. Shortly after the settlement, Unocal along with the firm’s operations in Burma were bought by Chevron, another American firm with an equally bad reputation for pollution and human rights abuses in Ecuador, Nigeria and Indonesia.
After the ERI case, many other rights groups and lawyers representing victims of some of the most notorious acts of corporate-induced environmental disaster and or corporate-funded violence across the world used the Alien Tort Claims act to pursue justice. A legal team representing the victims of the Bhopal disaster sued Union Carbide’s successor Dow Chemical for an explosion in India that killed more than 5,000 people. The family of the late Nigerian environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa sued Shell for the notorious role it had played in encouraging a military regime to hang Saro Wiwa and his colleagues from an environmental and rights group that was critical of Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations sided with the corporations and their respective Justice Departments urged the courts to throw out the suits. On September 17 this year, a second circuit Court of Appeals judge in New York ruled that the Alien Tort Claims Act could not be used to sue corporations. An appeal against this judgment is now under way but if higher courts affirm the ruling, it will prevent others from using the law in future suits.
One person likely pleased with the ruling was US Attorney General Eric Holder, whom prior to being appointed head of the Justice Department, represented the Chiquita banana company. Holder represented the firm in a settlement deal reached with the US government for charges relating to financing terrorism, after it had been revealed that the Chiquita paid “protection money” to a Colombian paramilitary group that was included on the US government’s list of terrorist organisations. Holder also represented the firm in court when it was defending itself from suits brought by relatives of the victim’s of the Chiquita-funded death squad. The relatives’ legal team followed ERI in using the centuries old law to sue Chiquita.