Canada Calling – Canada’s Talisman Energy Company’s Sudan Operations Targeted by Boston “Anti-Slavery Group”
By Faisal Kutty – “This is a great day for all of the people of Sudan,” said Dr. Jim Buckee in announcing the first loading of oil for export by Talisman Energy Inc. Dr. Buckee, president and chief executive officer of Talisman Energy, also said, “I would like to thank and congratulate Talisman’s employees, our partners and the government for their tremendous efforts toward achieving this milestone.”
It may be great for the people of Sudan, but the same can’t be said for the company. The Calgary-based corporation has faced problems within the Sudan from the beginning due to civil strife there. It may now have to deal with external pressures as well. The Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group has launched an international campaign to boycott the company. It is calling on institutional investors—pension and mutual fund companies—to divest from the exploration company.
The group alleges that the Sudanese government “is encouraging the slave trade as part of its decade-long ‘holy war.’” In a letter written to the National Post, Charles Jacobs, president of the Boston group, charges that the Canadian company is assisting this slave trade.
Calgary’s Talisman Energy is the third largest independent oil producer in the world. The company purchased a 25 percent stake in a Chinese-Malaysian-Sudanese consortium drilling in southern Sudan. The consortium now has established a refinery and has started shipping oil through a 1,500-kilometer pipeline to the north of the country. On Aug. 30, the corporation loaded its first cargo of 600,000 barrels of Nile Blend crude for export.
The anti-slavery group has sent letters to a number of mutual fund companies in the U.S. and Canada that have investments in Talisman. The allegation is that the government is using the profits from this business to persecute southern Sudanis. Jacobs bases his allegation on an alleged April 30 statement attributed to the head of Sudan’s National Islamic Front that the Sudan would use its new riches to build weapons factories.
In fact, according to an Associated Press report, the company has built a 60-bed hospital, as well as roads and water wells, and the government has pledged to build schools and hospitals both in the north and the south with its share of the profits.
The Boston group’s efforts appear to be focused on Canada for two reasons. First, Talisman Energy Inc. is the largest independent Canadian oil and gas producer. Second, one of the largest investors in the corporation is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, which holds 4.5 million shares worth approximately $122.4 million.
The company has operations in Canada, the North Sea, Indonesia and Sudan. Talisman also is conducting exploration in Algeria and Trinidad. Its shares are listed on the Toronto and Montreal stock exchanges in Canada and the New York Stock Exchange in the United States under the symbol TLM.
A Letter to Shareholders
The company appears to have anticipated the problem and attempted to address the concerns in a letter to shareholders dated May 27, 1999. In it Dr. Buckee wrote:
“Talisman’s investment in Sudan has given rise to comments from a variety of sources both for and against our involvement in the project. To satisfy these points, I have gathered information from many sources, including people with long-term experience in the country and Sudanese nationals. My summary response to these questions is that development in general, and specifically this project, is better than continued stagnation and is welcomed in the area.
“Secondly, Talisman’s presence and the attendant Western attention are better than their absence. Thirdly, in addition to the immediate, material benefits of the development, Talisman has had promising discussions with the Canadian government concerning a joint initiative to further the cause of peace and progress.
“To put the situation in context, it is useful to note that Sudan is a heterogeneous society of 300 languages and 500 tribes. It suffers from lack of development and uneven development. The situation has been aggravated by at least 16 years of civil strife, the roots of which are deep and complex. The main element of this is a civil war, which many experts describe as pitting the periphery against the center, but battles are also fought along tribal fault lines. Additional factors are racial and religious animosities, politics, regional struggles and the echoes of competition among world powers.
“Engagement offers at least the promise of positive change.”
“The unrest is often characterized as being between the 25 million or so people of the predominantly Muslim north, against the three to five million people in the predominantly Christian south. Reality is more complex, as a variety of religions are practiced in both areas.
“While Muslims are plainly dominant in the north, estimates of the number of Christians in the south vary widely but two references put the figure at 15 percent and less than 10 percent respectively.
“The combined effect of the war and periodic weather-related crop failure has ravaged the civilian population in southern Sudan. Many have died and many have fled to the north. As organizations like Human Rights Watch have stated, all sides in the fighting must share some of the blame for this suffering. One result of these troubles is lack of industrial development infrastructure, especially in the south, and the potential for improvement is correspondingly great.
“The government of Sudan has opposition both inside and outside the country and some activist groups argue that Western companies should refrain from all commercial activity there. I recognize that those who advocate boycott are well intentioned but I view their argument as counter-productive. A continued dearth of sound resource development would serve mainly to keep the living standards of Sudanese painfully low, especially in the south. Disengagement is a formula for stagnation at best. Engagement offers at least the promise of positive change…..
“I believe that the project will serve to ameliorate poverty over time and that Talisman’s presence helps bring a Canadian perspective and opens a new window in a country that needs international assistance, business development and a constructive framework to pursue peace.”
What is interesting in all of this is the speed with which the anti-slavery group has joined the Christian Solidarity International bandwagon in moving to isolate Sudan. Such rash judgments may have no effect except to harm the already deprived Sudanese people.
The very existence of slavery is challenged by many observers. According to the British-based Sudan Foundation, the evidence for the slavery allegation is feeble. In fact, this was confirmed by Lord McNair in a 1997 report titled The McNair Report on Allegations of Slavery and Slavery-like Practices in Sudan. The Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords carried out a physical investigation of some remote parts of the country and studied some of the literature outlining allegations of slavery in Sudan. He concluded that there was no evidence for allegations of government-directed slavery and slavery-like practices in those areas he visited. In the opinion of Lord McNair, “it is…clear that there has been something of an international campaign to isolate Sudan by means of these allegations.”
Moreover, the role of the government in the slave trade appears to be misrepresented. How can a government that has been unable to control a foreign-financed rebel movement and that is not in control of the nation be accountable for the actions of some fringe elements? How can a government that is branded as being too Islamic justify such an un-Islamic practice to its constituents?
More recently the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was asked to look into the situation by the Sudanese government. Though it alleged that there was evidence of a continuing slave trade in Sudan, UNICEF did not accuse the government of operating it. In fact, UNICEF promised “to cooperate effectively with the government of Sudan, and other interested members of the international community” to fight this problem. Moreover, it is unclear what role groups such as Christian Solidarity International and others have had in promoting and perhaps even reviving the practice.
The Swiss-based outfit, which first raised the alarm by alleging that northern Arab Muslims were enslaving African Christians and animists, claims to have “freed” more than 11,000 “slaves” by paying off Arab middlemen.
What is being labeled as slavery may be the continuation of a long-standing practice of inter-tribal hostage-taking which is being revived and exacerbated by the civil war and the diversion of aid money to “free” these “slaves.” Wherever there is a buck one will find willing suppliers.
Rather than rushing to judgment to alienate and break up a nation over political differences, humanitarian groups might better push for independent and objective investigations into allegations of human rights abuses. Their very credibility is at stake.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and international affairs columnist for iViews.com.
Note: First Published: OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 1999, pages 74, 99
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