Published on Saturday, April 22, 2000 by Agence France-Presse
Western Oil Companies Under Fire Over Human Rights, Environment
LONDON - From Alaska to Colombia, Nigeria to Myanmar, western oil companies have come under fire from ecologists and human rights activists, who have even bought their shares in order to infiltrate them.

"Environmental defence groups have been active for decades. But human rights activists have taken an interest in the operations of oil companies only for the past five years. This comes in the more general context of globalisation," said Alex Vines, a researcher with the London-based Human Rights Watch.

Aart Van Den Hoek, head of Oilwatch Europe, an Amsterdam-based non-governmental organisation, said that environmental questions and human rights were intimately linked, especially in the case of the oil industry.

Recently the British companies BP Amoco and Premier Oil, and the US company Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) came under pressure over these issues, which the companies say they are increasingly taking into account.

The British government threatened Premier Oil with legal action if it did not get out of Myanmar. Rangoon protested against a "witchhunt" by London and Premier Oil said it had no intention of quitting Myanmar.

Civilian populations meanwhile have entered the fray -- with 5,000 U'wa Indians threating mass suicide if Oxy starts prospecting on their homeland in the Amazon forest in Colombia.

The environmentalist organisation Greenpeace in 1995 forced Shell to back down on a plan to sink the obsolete oil platform Brent Spar in the Atlantic ocean by means of a boycott of its service stations. Since then Greenpeace has moved on by buying BP Amoco shares and during a recent shareholders' meeting demanded that money earmarked for a contested project in Alaska should instead be invested in solar energy.

The move was rejected by a majority of shareholders, but they were forced to listen to representatives of the Gwich'in people of Alaska, who live off reindeer, and claimed that planned drilling for oil in a nature reserve threatened them with "cultural genocide."

At the same shareholders' meeting, a pro-Tibet militant accused BP Amoco of supporting human rights violations in Tibet by China by investing in that country.

"Oil companies will change their policy if the majority of shareholders wants them to. It is probably healthy that activists go to the shareholders' meetings. That is the correct forum for them to protest in," said Jon Rigby, an oil analyst with the London branch of the French bank Paribas.

Salil Tripathi, campaign coordinator with Amnesty International for economics and human rights, said there were limits to the effectiveness of buying shares.

"It is a very costly game, you can lose money. Only big NGOs can afford it. It should help, but it should be used sparingly only. Let's be honest, resolutions are never going to get passed".

Of the oil companies, he added: "We do not accuse them, but we do feel that their action has contributed to human rights violations, they should take responsibility for it, and speak out against it.

"We do not call on companies to withdraw, we just say: 'You are there to make a profit and increase shareholder value, but you are fully accountable for it. If you are there, you have to do something about it."

Of Shell's activities in Nigeria, Tripathi said "Even Shell agrees that they could have done more," but added that Shell had learned from the problems it encountered there.

Shell spokesman James Herbert said he recognised that the criticisms encountered by the company had become "cleverer" in the way they drew attention to its activities.

But he said the company had taken increasing account of environmental and human rights problems, notably in Nigeria.

Copyright 2000 AFP.