The Multinational Monitor

October 2000 - VOLUME 21 - NUMBER 10


P O L I T I C A L     I N V E S T M E N T S

Fueling Genocide

Talisman Energy and
the Sudanese Slaughter

By Gabriel Katsh

When Calgary-based Talisman Energy announced its plans to purchase fellow Canadian oil company Arakis Energy in August 1998, Talisman Chief Executive Officer Jim Buckee hailed the takeover as "a rare opportunity with spectacular potential." Buckee has his eyes trained on Arakis' oil development programs in Sudan, where vast oil reserves lie untouched.

But Buckee has found the rare opportunity also to have spectacular potential for controversy, as human rights activists have denounced Talisman for supporting a Sudanese government which has been accused of a myriad of human rights violations ranging up to rekindling the trade in black slaves and genocide.

At the time of the takeover, Buckee was confident that support for the project "would pick up over time." Instead, criticism is mounting and a divestment campaign is gaining strength, demanding that Talisman cease operations in Sudan.

The government of Sudan, currently run by the fundamentalist National Islamic Front (NIF), is among the world's grossest human rights violators. Embroiled in a civil war that pits the northern-dominated government against the ethnically and religiously distinct south, the government is "deliberately and systematically committing genocide," in the words of a 1999 U.S. Congressional resolution, and "threatening the very survival of a whole generation of southern Sudanese."

"The whole range of human rights recognized by the United Nations has continuously been violated by agents of the government of Sudan," reported Dr. Gaspar Biro, the UN Special Rapporteur to Sudan, in 1996. He documented abuses such as slave raids, the torture of prisoners, hostage-taking, arbitrary arrests and detentions and vicious attacks on civilian settlements.

An estimated two million people have been killed in Sudan since 1983, and more than 4.5 million internally displaced.

To a considerable degree, say human rights advocates, the Sudanese military machine is fueled by Talisman and other multinational oil companies. "Massive human rights violations by Sudanese security forces, various government allied militias and armed opposition groups, are clearly linked to foreign companies' oil operations," Amnesty International concluded in a May report, "Sudan: the Human Price of Oil."

Blood and Oil
Major oil reserves were first discovered in Sudan in 1979-1980, when Chevron located oil during a decade-long lull in the country's civil war. In 1980, the government redrew the national boundaries, a move that many southern Sudanese viewed as an attempt by the north to usurp the oil without returning any of its benefits.

When Chevron announced plans to build a pipeline to carry the oil from the south to Port Sudan in the north, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) kidnapped and executed three Chevron workers. Chevron immediately halted its projects and returned later only briefly.

For the most part, Sudan's vast oil reserves remained untouched until 1993, when the Canadian State Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Arakis, bought rights to the fields Chevron had identified. Arakis formed what is now the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a collaboration of several international oil companies with interests in the Sudan. Talisman's takeover of Arakis included the purchase of its 25 percent share in GNPOC.

Arakis received the same hostile reception as Chevron. "The oil is taken from here and the cash goes to Khartoum to buy bombs that then kill our people," Salva Mathoc, a local commander of the SPLA, told the Toronto Star in 1998. "They [Arakis] are our next target."

Echoing a defense later used by Talisman, Arakis claimed that it was politically neutral, interested only in a "completely commercial project."

But the southern Sudanese and human rights advocates do not see things that way. International human rights monitors charge that Talisman is effectively funding the government's civil war, motivating the government to attack villages in oil areas and even providing facilities used by the government to prosecute the war.

The oil trade is pouring about $450 million a year into desperately poor Sudan. Before oil exports took off, the government was heavily in debt, in serious risk of defaulting on its loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and weakened further by U.S. economic sanctions. The oil exports keep the economy functioning and permit the government to fund its war efforts, which cost approximately $400 million each year.

Government spokespeople have acknowledged the role of oil money in paying for the war. Hassan al-Turabi, a leading spokesman for the government, last year told Agence France Presse that the government is using oil money to finance construction of several weapons factories.

"There is a clear connection between the new-found oil wealth and the government's ability to purchase arms," agrees Amnesty International in "Sudan: the Human Price of Oil," indicating that oil money was used to illegally purchase Polish tanks in violation of a UN embargo on arms trading with Sudan.

The Canadian government has arrived at similar conclusions. In October 1999, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced that "Canadians want assurances that the operations of Canadian enterprises are not worsening the conflict of the human-rights situation for the Sudanese people." He said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would send a delegation led by John Harker, a former advisor to the Prime Minister, to Sudan to investigate how Talisman's presence affected the Sudanese people. The mission produced a report, "Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission" (known as the "Harker Report"), which found that oil profits were being used "to directly support GOS [government of Sudan] military operations."

Eager to keep the oil pumps operating, the government has committed massive human rights violations in order to secure the oil exports, say human rights advocates. Biro's successor to the position of Special Rapporteur to Sudan, Leonardo Franco, stated in an October 1999 report that "long-term efforts by the various governments of the Sudan to protect oil production have included a policy of forcible population displacement in order to clear oil-producing areas and transportation routes of southern civilians."

"Tens of thousands of people have been terrorized into leaving their homes in Western Upper Nile since early 1999," reports Amnesty International. "Government forces have used ground attacks, helicopter gunship and indiscriminate high-altitude bombardment to clear the local population from oil-rich areas. This massive displacement of the local population followed the deployment of additional weaponry and forces specifically drafted in to protect the oilfields. The military tactics of the government's security forces of destroying harvests, looting livestock and occupying the area is designed to prevent the return of the displaced population."

The Sudanese government and its allies have indiscriminately bombed civilian settlements near oil-rich lands. Franco accused them of "attacking and killing scores of civilians with Antonov bombers, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery, abducting hundreds." Harker stated that "it is difficult to avoid Leonardo Franco's conclusion that a Œswath of scorched earth/cleared territory' is being created around the oilfields."

Raiding militias often capture and enslave women and children during vicious attacks on civilian villages. Victoria Ajang, a former slave from Sudan, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee in May 1999 about the horrors she witnessed during one such slave raid.

"We were all at home relaxing in the evening when men on horses with machine guns stormed through, shooting men, women and children," she said. "With no guns to defend against soldiers armed with rifles, we ran out of the village. As the soldiers chased after us, I saw friends fall dead in front of me. ... All around us, we saw children being shot - in the stomach, in the leg, between the eyes. Against the dark sky, we saw flames from the houses and building the soldiers had set on fire. The cries of the people forced inside filled our ears as they burned to death."

There have also been instances where Talisman's presence has directly provided the Sudanese government with the means to assault its civilian population, particularly through the use of oil field airstrips.

"Flights clearly linked to the oil war have been a regular feature of life at the Heglig [one of the major oil fields] airstrip," the Harker Report found. "These [flights] have armed and re-fuelled at Heglig and from there attacked civilians." The fuel going into these planes, used to attack civilians, is Talisman fuel.

The Talisman Defense
Talisman, especially through Jim Buckee, has vehemently denied helping the Sudanese government perpetrate war crimes in any way, and challenged many of the allegations of human rights violations. Buckee has denounced reports of atrocities as being a "very partisan reporting of issues and a coordinated attack, which doesn't necessarily represent the truth." In other instances he has claimed that Sudan and Talisman are unfairly targeted for criticism: "Sudan is not the most perfect place, but geez, look at Angola. There is lots of other nasty places. Why us? Why Sudan?" Buckee has suggested that if Talisman left Sudan, another company would simply take its place in the oil development consortium: "It's going ahead whether we are there or not." And, following in Arakis' footsteps, he asserted that "we are not supposed to be defending Sudanese history or the Sudanese government or anything else. We're just a business."

Buckee's most vocal objection has been to the allegations that the Sudanese government is committing genocide, launching slave raids and displacing civilian settlements: "I absolutely don't believe accusations of genocide and also think the accusations of slavery are grossly misrepresented and possibly manipulated." He told CBS MarketWatch that allegations of genocide were "wrong" and "[i]t is not true that the government of Sudan is deliberately, systematically committing genocide. That's just rubbish." When Leonardo Franco accused Talisman of aiding in ethnically cleansing oil-rich land, Buckee referred to his report as "hearsay."

Talisman has also argued that there actually are no people in the oil-rich regions to displace. "The fields are almost completely covered by water in the rainy season and there are virtually no permanent towns or settlements. Certainly, we have seen no evidence of any removals of people," Buckee said. Asked about displacement by reporters, Buckee responded, "There's nobody there. I'll show you photos. It's just flat, mud, there's nothing," or, more directly, "there are no people there."

Amnesty International specifically negated these claims in its May report: "Flying over Sudan it seems almost uninhabited - only by getting closer can one see the clutches of huts and, even more hidden, the cattle camps and the people. The oil companies involved in Sudan frequently assert that there are no settlements in the oil-rich areas and that allegations of mass displacement are therefore inaccurate. This is clearly not so."

Asked about the Amnesty report, Buckee simply stated that "we do not accept some of the conclusions drawn in the May 3 report."

Buckee also emphasizes what he views as the positive consequences of Talisman's involvement in Sudan. He points to a new hospital built with oil money, and claims that the government has told him it will use oil proceeds for education and health purposes. Buckee's opponents, however, say that one new hospital hardly counterbalances the many hospitals bombed and destroyed by the military. And the Harker Report says that the hospital may not, in fact, be benefiting southern civilians at all. "There is a suspicion that only Arab patients are welcomed at the hospital, that Dinka and Nuer [the two largest southern ethnic groups] are kept out of Heglig as far as possible," the report says.

Buckee has also emphasized that oil money has the possibility to pay for social services in the South. "This is perhaps the most significant factor that could accelerate social development that has ever occurred in the history of the southern Sudanese people." But the majority of southern Sudanese believe the money going to the government will never end up helping them. Harker reported that the majority of the south Sudanese population felt that "oil was hurting their people," especially when Talisman took it up north. "In fact, villages, militia commanders, political figures all asked us: ŒDid the Canadian oil company ask our permission to take our oil, and sell it? Why is Canada, a rich country, taking our oil without our permission, and without any benefit to us?'"

"If the Oil is Pumped, we are finished"
Talisman remains determined to continue pumping oil from Sudan, and the Canadian government does not appear prepared to stop the company. Public pressure was mounting on the Canadian government when Minister of Foreign Affairs Axworthy announced Harker's investigation. In his report, Harker lists the numerous problems that oil has caused, even going as far as to definitively state that "oil is exacerbating conflict in Sudan," but doesn't advocate for Talisman's withdrawal from Sudan. Instead, he recommends numerous ways that Talisman could continue to drill for oil while assuring that oil money is used properly (for example, placing oil revenues in a trust fund until the war ends). Axworthy termed this strategy "constructive engagement," and it fit well with Talisman's claims that it could effect positive change. None of Harker's suggestions for separating oil money from the government's military budget have ever been followed, however.

Meanwhile, human rights activists are demanding that Talisman leave Sudan and stop supporting the government's war on the southern Sudanese.

In Canada, groups like the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa (ICCAF) and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have taken a leading role in calling on the Canadian government to force Talisman to withdraw.

In the United States, the American Anti-Slavery Group and Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, have led a divestment campaign, modeled after the South African anti-apartheid strategy, to encourage Talisman shareholders to sell their stock as long as Talisman remains in Sudan. TIAA-CREF, the college teachers' pension fund, the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund and Fosters Resources Ltd., a Canadian oil and gas company, are among the investors who have divested from Talisman, with Fosters even saying it had to "admit defeat" to the divestment campaign.

Buckee has responded by saying that "what Sudan needs is more, not less, investment." But it is hard not to wonder who has a better grasp on the reality of the situation: Buckee, who asserts that "our presence can only be beneficial," or south Sudanese bishop Macram Max Gassis, who states that "[i]f the oil is pumped, we are finished."


Gabriel Katsh, a student at Harvard University, is an associate at the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, Massachusetts.